Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sam Simmons - Meanwhile, Soho Theatre

Since hearing such great things about his Edinburgh show, and watching this properly fascinating, insightful ComComedy interview, it's fair to say I've been pretty excited about the prospect of seeing Australian comic Sam Simmons.

Meanwhile, currently playing at the Soho Theatre, appears to be a mission on Simmons's part to give his audience licence to laugh at the silliest and most surreal things possible - and to feel ok about it. Pine cones dressed up as cowboys, the inherent evilness of ducks, a talking lama, Good King Wenceslas sung to the Star Wars Cantina Band tune - this is joyous, inspired and weird stuff and I loved it.

Some comedy is about shared recognition of the familiar, but Simmons tends to go down the Reeves and Mortimer route of drawing laughs from something genuinely surprising and odd and fun. And the fact that this mixture of child-like silliness and wanking jokes comes with a message attached only makes the show even more appealing to those of us who think that comedy can be the perfect tool with which to say the most important things.

There are so many rules these days, Simmons says in a "I'm mad as hell" finale, that we've lost all innocence and fun, and that's what I reckon he's trying to recreate here - both generally with the whole ethos of the show, and specifically with his show-closing attempt to evoke childhood memories through smashing the Old El Paso taco shells that he used to eat as a kid on his chest. "Confronting" he says, in a Tony Law-style moment of ironic commentary.

In fact, like Law, much of the show is a little trip into Sam Simmons's head, though it's hard to work out whether we should believe what we find there. Does he genuinely not think it's going well tonight, or does saying that just help back up the inner-monologue recordings that reveal Simmons's worries that he's "one step up from a juggler"?

If this all comes across as rather measured, that's only because over-analysing comedy is a favourite past-time of mine, and Simmons's show just begs to be unpacked. But rest assured, the most significant thing about Meanwhile is that it's laugh out loud, heart-warmingly funny. High expectations can be dangerous, sure, but not to be feared in the case of Simmons who, it transpires, is just as funny, inventive and smart as everyone has told me - if slightly more wild-eyed and combative. In a fabulous way.

The Ladykillers, Gielgud Theatre

A West End play, based on a classic comedy film, written by Graham "Father Ted and Ralph" Linehan and starring two hugely talented comedy actors Ben Miller and Peter Capaldi. There was always a chance I'd like the new stage adaptation of The Ladykillers, and like it I did.

There have been reviews which say that the staging is the real star of this production, and while that's to overstate things a little, there's no doubting that it's really ruddy good. All of the action takes place in and around sweet old Mrs Wilberforce's house in Kings Cross, which fills the stage, twists to reveal new rooms, leans precariously and shakes violently when a train goes by - sending tables and chairs sliding magically across the floor.

[Spoilers] With the entire criminal gang that stays in this rickety old house to bump off along the way, there's a lot of "stage business" like this throughout the play, and while it is occasionally a little clunky, most of it is inventive, fun and genuinely surprising. Wide-boy Harry (Stephen Wright) gets a bannister spindle through the stomach, One-Round (Clive Rowe) receives a fatal head wound from a cake knife and Eastern European, old-lady-hating Louis (Miller) is dispatched out the window after accidentally stabbing himself. All of this is achieved with real panache, but also all topped, I'm afraid, by a stunning visual gag involving the gang squeezing themselves into a tiny cupboard.

As for the writing, it's a curious mix of broad-as-you-like humour and really quite subtle throwaway lines. Some of the jokes are real groaners, but the running gags all have neat pay-offs and there's something approaching poetry in Professor's (Capaldi) grand speeches. It's perfectly cast - Capaldi is a Lithgow-esque ball of frustration and self-delusion, Miller is delightfully grumpy - and, like the deceptively dumb One-Round, this production may not wear its smarts on its sleeve, but it has them in bucketloads.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Joy of Sketch, Lyric Theatre

Sketch comedy is going through a bit of a lean old time on mainstream TV at moment. Messers Mitchell, Webb, Armstrong and Miller are all doing their own thing, and while it's been great to see pilots from Anna and Katy and Totally Tom, it's all very hit and miss* - and very rarely seen on the flagship channels. And as such, the nominations for the Sketch Show award at last night's British Comedy Awards were pretty uninspired - I'm delighted Horrible Histories won, and This Is Jinsy looks fun (I don't have Sky Atlantic...) but Come Fly With Me and a one-off Ronnie Corbett special? Hmm.

But on the stage, sketch groups are doing rather nicely thank you very much, and - as this new show presented by Time Out and the Pleasance at the Lyric Theatre - showed, what's particularly pleasing is that the genre is such a broad church at the moment.

First up were The Penny Dreadfuls, the Edinburgh Fringe darlings who have said once or twice over the past year that they won't be performing together again... thank goodness they're such damned liars, then, because it'd be awful for them to go their separate ways permanently. Back in Victorian attire, Thom Tuck, David Reed and Humphrey Ker showed that it's easy to find the perfect balance between fine writing and awesome improv. If you happen to be ridiculously talented.

Five-man Late Night Gimp Fight are always at their best when do something just a little bit weird, and their strangely sweet foot puppetry sketch proved as much tonight. Not as in-yer-face as their rap about bestiality, sure, but way cooler. As for Idiots of Ants, I don't think the irony that I'm sure is intended behind their "differences between men and women" sketch really translated, leading to a reaction which hovered between subdued and huffy, but their 'Allo 'Allo meets The Wire sketch is a load of fun. It's Pappy's, however, who are the real masters of Bacchanalian revelry on stage, and so it proved again at this show; a dodgy mic providing the little encouragement they need to go off-script and mess about. Just delightful, and I will never, ever tire of their song about gloves. Ever.

The most unconventional stuff of the night came from the four double acts on show. Pajama Men - whom I have praised enthusiastically on this blog before, but still not enough, in my opinion - probably got the biggest reaction of the night, and it was cool to see that their comedy does translate to a short slot. After two narrative shows, it'd be fascinating to see a proper sketch show from them... Anna and Katy's bizarre sketch in which they play South African men who use their weirdly long arms to fly (I did say it was bizarre) rightly went down a storm, and the charmingly shambling, low-key Two Episodes of Mash were a lovely change of pace.

Topping the bill were Will (iam Andews) and Greg (McHugh) who haven't performed together for a few years, and whom I haven't seen perform together at all. If you go back through my ACMS reviews and tweets, you'll probably get the impression that I'm something of a fan of the hugely inventive and very funny William Andrews - and hey, that impression would be 100% accurate - so it was ace to see him in a double act, and being as brilliant as ever.

All in all, a very high-quality night, and one that would quieten the mind of anyone concerned about the state of British sketch comedy. I wonder if there was anyone from the telly in?

* Annoying that I couldn't get through a piece about sketch shows without this phrase popping up somewhere, but at least it wasn't in the usual context...

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and Fanta Orange reviews

Did I not link to these reviews? How remiss of me.

Here's my take on the very lovely, the very funny and the very well-written Danny and the Deep Blue Sea...

...and here's my review of the well-meaning but oddly muddled Fanta Orange.

Both for the ace Exeunt magazine!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Matilda in the West End

The excellent RSC production of Matilda has come to the West End (my review of the Stratford show is here), and if you weren't aware of that fact already, you will be next week, as Tim Minchin hits the publicity trail for both his musical and the DVD of his stupendously good Orchestra show (I reviewed that too, here).

I went to see Matlida in its new Cambridge Theatre home last night and, if anything, it's even better on second viewing. Being a long time Minchin admirer (fan), the brilliant complexity of the songs was apparent to me from the off -they are beautiful, hummable and lyrically dense - but this time I also appreciated just how clever, funny and humane the book is. It's simulataneously subtle and full of almost pantomime characters, and draws out the significance of stories - prioritising that over the "magic" element of the novel that the film adaptation relied on. Importantly, the book and songs dovetail perfectly, both packed with jokes and brains and heart.

The imagination of the script and songs has also been reflected in some stunning staging, and the young cast are insanely talented - they've been given some great choreography which is ambitious to say the least, and they give it absolutely everything. Cleo Demetriou, who took the role of Matilda last night, is just a star. Go see it, basically.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Demetri Martin - Leicester Square Theatre, 15th Oct 2011

It has been far, far too long since Demetri Martin was in the UK.

I first found him a few years ago, along with my ace brother and sister-in-law who are also big fans, and I have lovely memories of listening to his CD with them in the car as we all headed to Leeds festival and laughing so hard at his description of being humilated by that last bit of ice that clings to the bottom of your glass.

So I've watched his TV shows - and adored his cameo in Flight of the Conchords of course - but having been away for over five years, this is the first time I've seen him perform live. And man. Pretty good, eh? Pretty good in the sense that he's without doubt one of the very best comedians I've seen, and probably one of the best comedians working at the moment full stop.

If you haven't seen any of his stuff (quick, YouTube it now, you fool!) he is, in a sense, an observational comedian. But he makes the best observations you've ever heard and never thought of, and distills them into perfect, clever one-liners that mean there must have been a hundred laughs in this 90 minute set. Every line lands.

And what's incredible is that these jokes often have the complexity of a mathematical equation but he disguises all his working with a charm and fun that makes it appear so easy. Take where he goes with the observation that after 'small, medium and large' we got lazy and just went for "extra large, extra extra large" etc. His suggested replacements are "whoa, slow down, stop that." Could not stop laughing.

I knew that there'd be quickfire gags, and I hoped that he'd bring his flipchart, keyboard, guitar and harmonica (he did); but what I hadn't expected was how up for general chat with the audience he'd be - more so even than the audience, in fact. His material is carefully crafted but he's clearly not only a writer - he's a naturally entertaining guy and a great performer.

After the gig - at which it was pretty obvious everyone agreed with this eulogistic assessment - Martin stopped to sign his book or whatever else people had happened to bring along, and so it was a real pleasure to be able to say how long I've waited to see him, and dorkily say "I'm Anna... I know you like your palindromes." He was, unsurprisingly, very lovely and very generous with his time. I just hope he doesn't wait so long to come back.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

ACMS, Terrible Advice and Backbeat reviews

I've had the pleasure of reviewing a few things recently, and if you'll allow me I'd love to point you in the direction of said reviews...

Alternative Memorial Comedy Society -

Terrible Advice - Exeunt

Backbeat - Exeunt

Done and done.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Some thoughts on reviewing

As all these reviews I've been posting probably attest, I did a bit of reviewing at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer and, being the sort to over-think, I've been pondering the whole process on and off ever since. I wasn't the only one to do so; ace magician and comic Chris Cox wrote a great piece from the performer's point of view about the impact of misinformed and spoilery reviewing, and I read a fair few Twitter conversations about badly-written or inconsistent reviews over the course of the month - as well as links to positive reviews of course, and some nice praise for really good ones.

Chris ends his piece "all any of us ask is that [reviews] are fair", but if anything he's being over-generous to reviewers there. I know that I want the reviews I read to also provide a bit of insight, to point things out that I would have missed, to provide a sense of the overall performance without giving away too many specifics, and to be an entertaining read. That's what great reviews do, and the best ones - written with real care by people who  know their stuff and love the field they're writing about -are a joy. My reviews certainly don't do all of this all the time, but am I increasingly conscious that to have any right to pass comment on others, what I write needs to have merit in itself - you can't criticise an act for being unoriginal if you employ a stream of clichés to do so. Hopefully I'm getting there.

One lovely thing to come out of my general musing, though, is that I really bloody love writing about comedy. I absolutely refute the idea that analysing comedy destroys it (the old 'and the frog dies' analogy) - I love looking at comedy from a 'critical analysis' point of view; trying to work why something is funny, why it works. Geek alert, I know, but I reckon a lot of comics are like that too, actually - comedians and critics certainly aren't the polar opposites they're often made out to be, in any case. There's definitely a similarity in mindset. We both think that what we have to say is interesting enough to be put in front of an audience - and both have the self-awareness to sometimes think that that's kinda ridiculous.

Now, if this were a review, I would be looking for a neat and satisfactory way to conclude... good job this was only billed as 'some thoughts', eh?

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Daniel Kitson and the Post-Fringe Gala Bash - Invisible Dot @ Union Chapel

The Invisible Dot's Union Chapel gigs are always glorious. Over the past three years they have provided me with wonderful Saturday night sets from some of my favourite performers including Tim Minchin, David O'Doherty, Tim Key, Mark Watson, Simon Amstell, Noel Fielding, Tom Basden and Kevin Eldon - often combined on bills where every act could easily headline.

It'll be hard to beat last night's line-up though. It was a special 'post-Fringe gala' hastily assembled by the Dot's Simon Pearce and MC Daniel Kitson to showcase some of their favourite acts from the festival - and announced just two days before it took place. Such is the pull of Kitson though, the Union Chapel was (deservedly) full for Comedy Award nominee Nick Helm, Colin Hoult, Sheeps, Dan Antopolski, Tony Law and Neil Hamburger.

Frankly, if I'd had the chance to put together a night featuring my favourite comics from this summer's Fringe, it wouldn't have been much different. Top of my list would have certainly been Tony Law, one of the very few acts I've seen that can physically tire an audience out with laughter (I rather liked his Fringe show, did I tell you?), and Colin Hoult, who is one of the others, wouldn't have been far behind. Also great to have Dan Antopolski there as a representative of Jigsaw - their sketch show was an hour of pure joy - and while I felt Sheeps's show had a few so-so sketches, I was really happy to see them again so soon because they clearly have the potential for such great things.

To start with our host Daniel Kitson, I hardly need say how brilliant he is - there's a reason he's so well-loved and well-respected and it's not just a case of people 'admiring' the fact that he's eschewed TV and celebrity; it's because he's so bloody quick-witted. The MC role is made for him then, able to take any threads provided by the audience and run with them into funny, unexpected places. Like Law, he enjoys a bit of self-analysis - at one point he explains a slightly fluffed line by describing the several joke options that had flashed through his head in under a second and concluding "if I'd been match-fit..."

Book-ending this gig were the two comics that I've not seen live before - Nick Helm and Neil Hamburger. It's awful, I realise, to admit I've not seen Helm but it's not been through want of trying; just bad luck. A couple of times I've been scheduled to see him, only to have my plans thwarted, and seeing as though I'd really enjoyed what I'd seen of him on telly and YouTube, it was getting distinctly irritating. Worth the wait though. One-liners, poems and songs all combine for a torrent of high-energy, voice-shredding self-deprecation. And audience-deprecation. He'll be shouting abuse into an audience-member's face one moment, asking them to hold him the next - he's terrifying and adorable all at the same time. I loved it.

Neil Hamburger split the room, but I suspect that's par for the course for this comic (aka character comedian Gregg Turkington) - Kitson came onto the stage after his set giggling about the fact that he can make some people "so angry". A shambling, old-fashioned gent with a Southern drawl who does bad-taste cracker jokes about celebrities, Hamburger is an intriguing character. Why is he so full of vitriol? And why does telling his vitriolic gags apparently fill him with so much sadness? Set-up-and-punchline comedy is usually perfect for a short set, but I think I need longer than twenty minutes to work out who this character really is...

Colin Hoult performed as Eddie, the Saint Germain obsessive who transforms from laughable to sympathetic as we realise that he only fills his life with jiving to the dull, repetitive strains of nu-jazz because his wife died and he feels he hasn't made anything of himself. This set has reduced me to tears in the past (of laughter, but it's pretty devastating when he reveals his backstory, too) but it isn't shown at its best in such a huge room. He's still something pretty special, though.

And as for Sheeps - they stormed it. They got big laughs for their musical version of Oliver Twist ("we saw a gap in the market..") and particularly for a sketch where members of Abba and the Bee Gees prompt a dear old lady to sing about the ghost in her house - thus providing them with a number one melody. A bizarre premise, but they're great when they're bizarre.

After three acts big on energy - Helm, Hoult and Sheeps - the laid-back Dan Antopolski was a lovely change of pace (not that he's always so mellow, of course; his rap about the joys of owning a laser is upbeat brilliance). A superb wordsmith, inventive and just hugely likeable, he's the sort of comic that makes you feel utterly at ease, and happy to sit back and listen for as long as he's willing to keep the jokes coming.

The phrase "the phrase 'genius' is over-used" is over-used, but I defend my right to use it in reference to Tony Law. What he does these days in annotating his own material, second-guessing the audience's thoughts and undercutting comedy conventions is so technical, and yet it's performed with such joy and chutzpah. You shouldn't be able to destroy a 700-seater by saying the name 'Gok Wan' over and over again in a range of accents. You just shouldn't. But he did.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Casual Violence - Choose Death

Stark strip lighting, the head of a mannequin spinning on a record player pumping out the Bee Gees on repeat and a clown nursing a bottle of vodka. It's an utterly disorienting sight to be greeted with on entering the venue for Choose Death, but it certainly sets the tone.

Sometimes, a show delivers precisely what its title suggests and - as you might have gathered - the rather macabre-sounding Casual Violence's Choose Death is certainly one of them. If you've come looking for the twisted side of life, you've got it in one; this is dark, weird and bold stuff that, brilliantly, doesn't forget to be funny.

At the top of the show, we are informed by our host - who also offers several musical interludes - that we will bear witness to six grisly deaths over the course of the night, so while there's no real narrative, we follow a small set of characters as they hurtle towards their fate. Big on neat writing and excellent comic acting, we're closer to the off-beat world of character comedian Colin Hoult here than most of the knockabout sketch troupes to be found on the Fringe.

Casual Violence's 'comedy collective' sensibility means this is great ensemble work, and each performer treats the audience to a stand-out moment somewhere along the way, while providing assured support when it's someone else's turn in the spotlight.

Greg Cranness, for example, displays heart-breaking sincerity as that poor clown who wordlessly tells us that he has lost his sweetheart, and James Hamilton offers some of the biggest laughs as a crotchety, creepy old man obsessed with taking his final breaths in the perfect death bed. Luke Booys's main character Bad Legs - an armless criminal with a penchant for knocking off dear old ladies - is as funny as he is terrifying.

The only slight problem with all of this is that there is no let up. It's very tightly choreographed and the performances are incredibly intense, to the extent that when the audience caught the glimmer of a corpse from one of the actors, their laughter had something of relief about it. Perhaps a chink of light might be good to counter the darkness then, but in the main, this is massively enjoyable comedy - twisted, smart and unique.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Nadia Kamil and John-Luke Roberts - The Behemoth

On leaving this show, I doubt it's unusual for audience members to find themselves considering the following: just what is The Behemoth? Cerebral and high-brow? Unadulterated silliness? It's certainly not bland enough to be considered something in-between... so it must be all these things.

In the nicest possible way, Nadia Kamil and John-Luke Roberts do have wonderfully warped minds. Their sketches are bizarre, but this certainly isn't just weirdness for its sake - in fact, there's often an odd sort of logic going on in the background. The shorter sketches in particular go some way to reconciling that clever/silly dichotomy, as what ends up being utterly odd often has a single genius concept at its heart.

'Party bee' encapsulates this - though to explain any further would ruin the joke - and stool rodeo (yup, bucking bronco on a motionless stool) is just an inherently funny idea. I also loved the dour horse sparring with a sparkly unicorn, and the robots who aren't finding robo-revolutionary Earth quite as technologically advanced as they'd hoped.

We only really see any classic 'straight-man vs class clown' action when we get glimpses of what appears to be the real Nadia and John-Luke, as they read out an exchange of letters between a Victorian gent and the lady he intends to marry. Nadia keeps adding little ad-libbed embellishments onto the end of hers, while an increasingly exasperated John-Luke frets about the next act needing the room. They're canny comedy performers, these two, so whether this is actually just another layer of their on-stage personas, we don't know. But as it's funny it hardly matters.

Some rather long sketches unbalance things a tad, but there are some lovely touches that keep the energy up and the show moving along - slides in the background, songs, even fully choreographed inter-sketch dance routines. What is the Behemoth? It's certainly clever, and it's certainly absurd, but it's also a whole heap of fun.

Written for British Comedy Guide

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Jigsaw

If a jigsaw is put together with painstaking care, the result (hopefully) is something sigh-enducingly satisfying. This sketch act is well-named, then, as that description could also be accurately ascribed to this hugely enjoyable show from three great stand-up comics in their own right - Nat Luurtsema, Dan Antopolski and Tom Craine. A whole lot of work has been put into creating dozens of stand-alone sketches, and it pays off in the form of a very funny and consistently high-quality show.

This act's chosen name lends itself to analogies so hopefully you'll allow me one more, in pointing out how perfectly these three performers fit together. Their rapport is natural and infectious, and an hour spent in their company is a properly cockle-warming one.

But just as important as being utterly lovely, this show is also packed with gags. We get straight into the jokes without intructions or set-up and, with sketches lasting more than a minute a rarity, the pace rarely lets up. Considering this show is such fun, there's a distinct lack of messing around here - props, costume changes, audience-work, corpsing and even running gags are all kept to a minimum in the name of cramming in more quick-fire sketches. If anything, it might be nice for one or two to be left to develop.

Perhaps reflecting the three different comedy minds that make up this new act, the sketches display lots of different types of comedy too. Some are visual one-liners, some showcase great physical humour, some rely on clever word-play, (and some on stupid word-play), some are all about the absurdity of the idea. My favourites included a terrible hostage negotiator, a woman engineering unusual situations in which to find love, and the corny-as-hell punchline to a wandering minstrel sketch. It's often silly, but the writing is very smart indeed.

Written for British Comedy Guide

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Sheeps

Three-man sketch group Sheeps has come to Edinburgh with a show which has lots of lovely ideas, and which is performed with a huge amount of energy and a heck of a lot of acting nous, but which varies in quality quite considerably.

My favourite sketch by some way is one in which an incredibly creepy lighthouse keeper decides to build his son a friend using the slowly decomposing body parts of dead people... if anything, it's even darker than that makes it sound, but it's also really funny and brilliantly performed.

The longer sketches like this which rely on great dialogue are the ones which tend to work well overall, in fact, so these three gents are clearly talented writers. I also really enjoyed a sketch involving two lesser-known members of the Black Eyed Peas complaining about Fergie, and just listening to them give out about her in a highly passive-aggressive way is a lot of fun.

But then at the other end of the spectrum there are one or two notable mis-steps, particularly a sketch about the cliches that footballers use, which seems a bit of an easy laugh. Plus, there are a couple of sketch group 'conventions' used here - there's the suggestion that one of the guys is meant to be the 'dumb' one, and another leaves the group temporarily for a glamorous life on the French Riviera - and I just don't think Sheeps need to stay so safe; in fact, they're at their strongest the odder they go.

Then again, another of the really enjoyable sketches is simply a pitch-perfect parody of inane television game shows... So perhaps the key word here is just 'potential'. There's bucket-loads on show, in both writing and performing, and there's little doubt over time Sheeps will get better and better as they really focus in on what they do well.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Henry Paker - Cabin Fever

Following on from his great turn in the hugely charming and very funny sketch group Superclump (along with the likes of Elis James and Nat Luurtsema) in 2009, and his other great turn in the inventive and, well, again, very funny play The Golden Lizard (with the fab Mike Wozniak) last year, we've finally got a full hour of non-stop, solo Henry Paker. And you know what? Turns out he's charming, inventive and very funny all on his own too.

For his show Cabin Fever he's holed up in the Pleasance's rather cramped and hot Hut venue - "should have called it 'Portacabin Fever'" he half-quips, half-sighs - and frankly, the small space barely holds him. He's a tall man and he loves to fill the room, striding up and down to act out his stories.

But the room does fit with the Cabin Fever theme which, however loosely, ties together his anecdotes and observations under the umbrella of 'things we would talk about if we were stuck halfway up a mountain.'

Turns out we would talk about pretty day-to-day stuff like technology gripes and dating, and there are moments when you worry we're heading into prosaic comedy territory - in particular one section about the pointlessness of the 'Insert' key on your keyboard. Needn't have worried. What's great about Paker is that he can push seemingly everyday observations into bizarre and unexpected places, and it's that creativity and slight oddness that makes this show so enjoyable.

Watch out for the great set piece, too, in which Paker demonstrates how he can pretend to have read a potential lady-friend's favourite book in order to impress her. To see him hanging onto every word to gather crumbs of information that will help the charade, with ever-increasing desperation, is a real treat.

Cabin Fever does get off to a rather sedate start, but for the most part this is a hugely entertaining show with just the right level of silly, delivered by a confident and engaging comic.

Written for British Comedy Guide

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Tom Bell Forever

The small Leicestershire village of Kegworth may not seem like the natural breeding ground of comic book heroes, but in this funny, lo-fi show at the Tron, we discover that it was indeed the birthplace of one such Dark Knight: Tom Bell, the indier half of ace sketch double act Tommy and the Weeks, who here offers us a "gritty" retelling of his life. Think Christian Bale, not Adam West.
Well, maybe. In reality, Bell is an endearing, upbeat sort of comic, and the Hollywood reboot simply a nice peg on which to hang true stories from his life, via the odd (in both senses) character and even a song or two.

There's a 'one that got away' theme running through the show, too. Whether he's taking on his Batman persona and discussing a childhood sweetheart (who's supposed to be being played by Jennifer Aniston if she'd ever turn up) or performing in the guise of a misogynistic Aussie comic, the heartbreak of having loved-and-lost is never far away...

And between the backstory and character skits - look out for a serious message about the dangers of over-fishing delivered direct from Neptune himself - we get little glimpses into the world of Love It! magazine. This is a rag which features such exclamation-marked coverlines as "Raped by an evil clown!", and with which Bell has become somewhat obsessed.

The magazine could, you suspect, provide a whole hour's worth of material in itself, such is the absurd delight it apparently takes in horrific tales of unusual illness and domestic abuse, but Bell doesn't lean too heavily on it and neither does he need to. He has a great, off-beat turn of phrase and this show may be on the shambolic side, but it's also endlessly inventive, with a really sweet ending.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Tony Law - Go, Mr Tony, Go!

To start a review with the line: "Tony Law's show is a painful experience" would be hugely dangerous. In fact, this show is so brilliant I fear I'll run out of superlatives for it before I finish, but - in my case at least - the cheek-and-stomach ache induced by laughing at Law's comedy does make the line completely true, if rather recklessly misleading. But then, in going for the dangerous option I am only following Law's own lead.

For one, Go, Mr Tony, Go! is taking place at The Stand 2, away from the main Assembly-Pleasance hub of the comedy Fringe, and at midday - dangerously early for the notoriously tardy Fringe-going public. "What are you all doing here?" Law asks his sell-out audience at the top of the show.

But more than that, a large portion of the show concentrates on Law demonstrating just how dangerous a character he is with examples of the low-level hazardous situations he knowingly puts himself in. This is such a feature of the show that in one of the many instances of Law vocalising what he imagines is going on in his audience members' heads he says: "we get it Tone, you're dangerous, that's probably enough examples." In a super-rare case of Law being off the mark, that certainly wasn't what I was thinking. I could listen all day.

Silliness abounds then - an imagined encounter with a panda bear prostitute certainly falls under that category - but a lot of this show is actually about comedy itself, with Law often referencing the fact that he has taken a rather different path from those comics that "notice things". And he's constantly self-analysing, reacting out loud to whether a line has gone down well or not - you can often hear the cogs in that comedy brain of his whirring away.

On one level, Go, Mr Tony, Go! is a an hour-long stream of joyous nonsense - and that would probably be sufficient. But in fact the show is a whole lot more; a little chinese puzzle waiting to be unpacked, full of lengthy surreal digressions, throwaway lines that other comics would kill for, and subtle little callbacks that it takes the audience a couple of moments to dredge up from their memory banks.

In this small, circular room, Law's force of character dominates, and he regularly manages to get the punters to that lovely point of still giggling about the previous joke when he's already moved onto the next. With the show starting at noon, you could easily go on to see another five or six shows on the same day, but you're unlikely to see a better one. As clever as it is loud, ridiculous and hilarious, Go, Mr Tony, Go! is, ultimately, a gem.

Written for British Comedy Guide.

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Marcel Lucont etc.

Marcel Lucont, the French laid-back lothario never to be seen without a glass of decent red on the go - and the creation of talented comic Alexis Dubus - would normally come to Edinburgh with his own solo show, ready to wow the crowds with dirty verse and cod-philosophy. This year, though, he's been busy writing a book - "so" he says with a shrug "here we are." And where we are is a chat show format, with two guest comedians taking questions from him about their own shows and whatever else springs to mind.

Josh Howie was the first guest, who gave us a little preview of his show I Am A Dick with stories of his own shambolic - but unintentional - dickishness. For whatever reason, the conversation was a bit stilted - prickly even - but things were definitely livened up by Howie demonstrating his 'party piece' of yo-yoing... with a roll of gaffer tape. Very funny. Zoe Lyons came next and was her usual charming self, veering from angry tirades at motorists that won't let you in, to laughing at how - having met her girlfriend on Lesbos - she feels she's slowly turning into a lesbian stereotype.

The audience were surprisingly subdued audience for a Saturday night - Lucont quickly realised that getting the crowd to ask questions was a bit of a cul de sac - but did provide one of the odder moments of the night. Each guest must undertake a staring content with their host (of course), and when asked how long Howie had managed, a guy on the front row responded with the enigmatic "twenty-two to forty-seven..." The confused ranting this prompted from Lucont was a definite highlight.

The reason the format works, and could get better over the course of the festival, I reckon, is that Dubus has been playing Lucont for so long now that the character is completely fully formed. Dubus knows exactly what Lucont would say in any given situation - something that highlights his own virility, for example, or berates the English.

The fact is, though, while the chats are enjoyable, for me they are far out-stripped by the short snippets of stand-up we get from Marcel. His "50 actual ways to leave your lover" is a truly wonderful set-piece that gets funnier as it gets more absurd, and as for his poetry: pure filth. But great. Did I have fun? Very much so. Would I rather just see a full show from the brilliant Monsieur Lucont? Probably...

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: How To Be Awesome - An Introduction - Lou Sanders

When Lou Sanders tells us early on that the name of her show doesn't necessarily fit the content, she quickly turns that potential disappointment on its head to reveal that it was actually just one of her rather brilliant pranks. In reality, she was probably right the first time, as - self-help fans beware - this show may be a lot of fun, but it certainly doesn't offer too many cast-iron tips on how to be awesome.

But that's no matter. 55 minutes spent with Lou Sanders is 55 minutes ram packed with lovely little ideas and a whole heap of different styles of comedy - a bit of odd whimsy here, and a neat one-liner there.

The only issue with this is that Sanders crams so many ideas into her show that not many have time to really progress. Her new-on-the-comedy-circuit alter ego Kerry P, for instance, with her painfully - and, purposefully on Sanders's part of course - obvious and banal observation comedy is a hoot, and it'd be fun to see more than a couple of minutes from her. And a member of the audience is treated to a This Is Your Life moment complete with lots of wonderful made-up facts ("he likes a bath... he's a bath man!") which I would have happily listened to for much longer.

There are rare moments when Sanders strays into more traditional story-teller mode, but she is absolutely at her best when she's at her most bizarre - talking to a toy pigeon named Doctor Spinky particularly springs to mind, for instance, or predicting audience members' futures with the aid of a flimsy cardboard 'Destiny Wheel'.

The loose theme of the show means Sanders has to act as if she thinks she's thoroughly marvellous - you've got to be an expert in awesomeness to instil it in others of course. It's hard to make arrogance charming, but when it's nicely played with a wink throughout, as it is here, Sanders proves it's possible. A bit haphazard, then, but hugely enjoyably so.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Pulp, Wireless Festival @ Hyde Park

Seeing as though I was 9 years old back when Do You Remember The First Time? came out, well, I don't. Not really. His 'n' Hers rather passed me by, but just a year later I had, apparently, acquired something of a taste for intelligent indie pop, and bought (was bought?) both The Boo Radleys' Wake Up! and Pulp's Different Class. Who could have guessed that I'd go on to be a Divine Comedy/Ben Folds/Rufus Wainwright fan, eh..?

Fast forward sixteen years and I properly discovered Do You Remember The First Time? for the first time on a balmy July evening in Hyde Park. (I'll stop doing these weird puns now.) It was Pulp's opening song at the Wireless Festival, and I don't think I've ever seen such a happy, excited crowd as the moment when the chorus kicked in, and streamers exploded out into the audience.

It was pretty beautiful. The whole set was pretty beautiful, in fact, and - while I'm sure the aficionados pledge their allegiances to guitarist/violinist Russell or keyboard player Candida - to me I'm afraid most of that was down to Jarvis Cocker. Jarv is one hell of a front man; funny, generous, great singer and a freaky mover, he climbs over every inch of the stage and you can't take your eyes off him. You pay for a musician and you get a raconteur and dancer too. Not bad going.

And yes, the songs aren't half bad too. ....First Time really was a highlight, but the singalong quality of many of their tracks means they're a perfect festival band. Sorted For E's and Wizz is, of course made for festivals (and I'd forgotten how much I adored it when it came out), and This Is Hardcore and F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E are just stunning live.

Plus, I can't help but have a little soft spot for Common People - when I was feeling a little homesick during my first week at uni, it was shouting "watching roaches climb the wall" with the rest of Indie Soc that persuaded me everything was going to be ok. I'll probably always remember that - and I'll probably always remember singing it with my friends and a few thousand others this weekend too.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Pajama Men - In The Middle of No One, Soho Theatre

I wrote this gushy little review for the British Comedy Guide...

A Pajama Men show is one of life's unadulterated joys. This is the second show I've seen by the flannel PJ-clad double act Mark Chavez and Shenoah Allen, and - just as with the first - I left the theatre on a glorious high, quickly rifling through my diary to see when I could fit in a second viewing.

The set-up is similar to their previous show, Last Stand To Reason, too. In In The Middle Of No One, Chavez and Allen again present a chronologically-skewed tale in which they play all the characters, with the aid of nothing but two chairs, a wonderful musician, and their own comedy genius; constantly and effortlessly jumping back and forth in time and between roles.

Some scenes drive the plot forward - when Chavez stumbles over his words near the start of the show, Allen shouts "get the exposition out!" with gleeful encouragement - some are just silly vignettes that allow these performers to show off. The story involves a very formal adventurer, child services, aliens and a time-travelling fraud, but frankly you're more concerned with the cutsie girlfriends chatting about their love lives and the rare bird with a 'come hither' call.

Sometimes the comedy is based on clever word play and an obvious love of messing with language ("I'll see your wife and raise... your children"). Sometimes it's all about their superb mime and physicality, with the two playing at being marionettes, or getting ridiculously up close and personal. Sometimes you just find yourself guffawing embarrassingly loudly at the phrase "sideways decanter".

Chavez and Allen appeared in particularly giggly mood this evening but is all that corpsing for real? I don't know, and because I don't know, I don't care - it felt special to us, and if it feels special every night then so much the better.

It's funny, but it's more than that. It's clever and sweet and you actually care about the multitude of characters you meet in this twisted tale. If this all sounds hyperbolic, it isn't - the Pajama Men are simply this good. I'd never say kill for a ticket (how hackneyed), but do what you can within the bounds of the law and common decency to get your hands on one.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Government Inspector - Young Vic (preview)

Like many, I assume, I was particularly drawn to the Young Vic's new production and indeed version of Gogol's The Government Inspector thanks the canny casting of Mighty Boosher Julian Barratt in the (co-)lead role of the Mayor. And I'm very glad I was - this has its problems (some of which may be ironed out by opening night), but it sure is a lot of fun.

Described by Nabokov as "Russia's greatest comedy" (no quips about the level of competition, please), the premise is simple - the inept and corrupt Mayor of a small provincial town hears that a Government inspector is on the way, and mistakes a gambling conman, Khlestavkov for said official. Driven half-mad by the idea that he might be hauled to St Petersburg - or worse, Siberia - the Mayor and his equally questionable town 'elders' shower an increasingly ecstatic Khlestakov with money and compliments.

The best scene by far is when the Mayor and Khlestakov first meet - the former terrified by the power he assumes the inspector has; the latter assuming his debts have finally caught up with him. They eye each other suspiciously, are constantly talking at crossed purposes, and both are desperate to keep the other on side. It's awkward, odd, and very, very funny - and Klestakov's slow realisation that he might just be able to play this to his huge advantage is the first suggestion that the man who plays him - Kyle Soller - is going to be very good indeed.

And he really is. His Klestakov is an urbane dandy dressed in St Petersburg's finest (every garment conned out of some poor tailor, you assume), obsessed with fashion and fame and able to talk his way out of the most dire of situations. Think Blackadder's Percy, but with charisma and confidence. Soller's part is very dense, but - just like the gathered townspeople - you hang on every word, and this is combined with a lovely physical performance that director Richard Jones demands of all his actors here.

Barratt's Mayor is in some ways the polar opposite of his visitor - big, coarse, angry and dishevelled - on the other hand he's flying by the seat of his pants just the same, ducking and weaving as well as he can to avoid the inspector discovering, for example, that they never did build that church that the town was given hundreds of roubles for. Unsurprisingly, Barratt is most at home with the more outright comic elements of his part, delivering lines with the wonderful offbeat timing that makes him such a great comedian, but he does trip over a few words too and he could go even further with his breakdown. But in the main this is a pretty excellent first foray into 'straight' theatre - you certainly wouldn't know it.

When I tweeted my quick just-out-of-the-theatre response to this production I called it an "assault on the eyes", and that was a reference to the decision to style the sets and costumes as gaudily as possible - all big 70s prints, purple, sequins, turquoise and copious gold braiding. The Mayor's wife, Anna (the brilliant Doon Makichan having a whale of a time) usually manages to combine all of this into a single, insane, four-foot-wide dress. Quite why the stage and actors have been dressed this way I can't entirely work out, except perhaps from having the effect of making this ragtag bunch of bumbling fools appear even more ridiculous.

Any serious political subtext to Gogol's original is not particularly evident here - the aim is to garner big laughs and, thanks especially to the lead performances, it succeeds, with Soller as the shining star. One to watch, I'd say.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

2x theatre reviews...

Two! I know. Amazing.

I've written a couple of things for Exeunt Magazine recently, and you may be interested in reading them. I couldn't possibly comment.

Prisoner of Windsor at the Leicester Square Theatre (not great) and Play It Again, Sam at the Gate House Theatre, Highgate (very good).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Thoughts on Attack The Block

Like any fan of the Saturday morning-brightening Adam and Joe (although full disclosure: I've come to them shamefully late) I've been looking forward to old Cornballs' first directorial outing Attack The Block for some time now; though I would have dug the premise - a gang of South London kids defend Earth from an alien invasion - even without Joe Cornish's involvement. Who doesn't love a film that can be summed up in so few words? It's all about high concept.

Being directed and written by someone so well-liked, and coupled with the promotion (which has been pretty relentless over the last couple of weeks), Attack The Block has had a hell of a lot of attention - mostly very positive, but in a few isolated but notable exceptions, well not so much. Being a proper student of film, though, you'd imagine that the most notable exception for Cornish is Mark Kermode, who blogged an 'immediate reaction' review to ATB a few weeks ago and essentially summed it up with "well, it's not Shaun of the Dead."

This was no doubt a big disappointment for Joe, but it did give rise to some of the best radio I've heard in a long time when, yesterday, he appeared on Kermode and Mayo's Film Review and called DrK out on his review. He was a bit defensive, DrK was on the back foot, they both clearly respected each other but didn't want to back down, it was prickly, awkward, intelligent, respectful... an amazing listen, really, so I encourage you to iPlayer it if you missed it.

So to the film - and I thoroughly enjoyed it. What's particularly impressive is that, in a film by a first time director and plenty of just-about first time actors, it it absolutely the direction and performances which are its best elements. This may not be a deep or intellectual response to the film, but it just looks insanely cool throughout - the council block being attacked from all sides by creatures from another planet is lit and shot like some monolithical space station, with the interiors all stark and other-worldly and the walkways used for hugely exciting chase scenes. As much as I enjoyed watching ATB, I also enjoyed just looking at it.

As for the young actors playing the bunch of hoodies who turn their attentions from car jackings and playing FIFA to the more pressing issue of alien invasion - they are all superb. The film opens with them mugging a young nurse on her way home, and they deal with the transition from unlikeable to our heroes with subtlety and aplomb; particularly John Boyega as central character Moses and Alex Esmail as his hugely loyal right-hand man Pest. In front of our eyes they transform from a gang with all its negative connotations to a gang in the most positive, Scooby-Doo-slash-Goonies sense; but without their previous crimes ever being forgotten. They are fun, fascinating and believable.

There are, I think, a couple of missteps - the middle-class white kid (played by Luke Treadaway) who's trying ingratiate himself with the cooler kids from the block is probably too broadly drawn, and while the gore level is pitched just right, it could do with being jumpier. But these issues barely detract from the enjoyment of a film which pushes all the sci-fi geek buttons that you need it to (starting with a starry sky and panning down, anyone?), has characters you care about and - call me shallow if you like - above all is just freaking stunning to look at.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Article announcement #4: The Comedy Crawl

Yo! If you're at all interested, please make your way quickly but carefully to the British Comedy Guide where I have written up my experiences of the first ever Comedy Crawl. Thank you. Message ends!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Best of Karaoke Circus - Leicester Square Theatre

That's me and Rob Sedgebeer holding up a stage-diving Dave Gorman, that is. It's the sort of thing you only get at Karaoke Circus.

The other sort of thing you only get from Karaoke Circus is Martin White and Danielle Ward indulging their love for Masterchef by getting cult hero from this series Tim to headline, singing Beck's Sexx Laws. I mean, that's pretty darn cool. You just knew he'd like Beck, didn't you?

This was a 'Best of' night in aid of Shelterbox, so we got some reprises of 'classic' performances, including the excellent Tony Gardner keeping a straight face during Wheatus's Teenage Dirtbag, Thom Tuck donning ace aviator's for Cee-Lo Green's F*** You, and Laurence and Gus's frankly astonishing rendition of 7 Seconds. Excitingly for me - as I missed his first performance of the song back at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe - Mr Simon Amstell also released his inner stage-school kid to sing Enrique Iglesias' Hero. Quite a sight to behold.

With The Baron - usually the 'good cop' in the judging team - away, it was up to Dan Maier and Dan Tetsell to take turns going against type and shouting superlatives in praise of every brave singer. They soon tired of that though, of course, both preferring instead to expertly tear each performance to pieces in the most satisfying, accurate and funny way possible without actually leaving anyone in tears.

Between the comics were, as ever, members of the audience who have the freaking cahoonas to get up on stage and sing, and there was a great, expanded KC band/mini-Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra backing the performers. Rarely will you have a room filled with more lovely and talented people, I'd say.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Josie Long and Friends, Bush Hall

Written for the British Comedy Guide.

Dotted all across London, there are gorgeous little venues hidden behind various unconvincing-looking facades. That's certainly the case with Shepherd Bush's Bush Hall - nestled between 24 hour supermarkets, you'd never suspect that once you've made your way through the buzzer entry system you'll find a rather opulent ballroom, complete with chandeliers.

Bush Hall is the occasional home of Show + Tell, purveyors of fine comedy, poetry and storytelling, and the outfit behind some great recent shows including Terry Saunders's 6 And A Half Loves and Edward Aczel's lengthily-named Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better. And Show + Tell's latest offering there was Josie Long And Friends, a predictably (from the title) lovely night with an excellent line-up.

You often get added extras when Josie Long (pictured) is involved, so as well as introducing her fellow acts and kicking off the night with a short set herself, there were also competitions, a play about the Bronte sisters and a taste test of several different cheap 'n' cheerful nutrition drinks. It has been much discussed that Josie's comedy has taken on a harder edge as she gets increasingly angry with the decisions of our newish government, but ultimately, I'm still a fan of the hand-made, all-in-it-together style that has served her so well in the past. So it was great to see that even in this Clegg and Cameron era, a mood of positivity outweighed the glimmers of frustration that occasionally broke through when Long was on stage.

The lovely atmosphere created by our host was carried through by first act James Acaster, who has recently supported Long on tour. An observational comic, what's really striking about Acaster is that his subject matter is so everyday, that in other hands the comedy could be everyday too. He talks about the fact that, an unadventurous man, he's only every used one side of the cheese grater, and spins a great yarn about the proper way to hold a surprise birthday party - these are simple ideas, but such is Acaster's gift for a neat turn of phrase and physical comedy that the set is turned into something way more impressive than the sum of its parts.

John-Luke Roberts came after the first break, and I've never really seen his club set achieve anything less than a room-slaying (in a good way). That record was maintained tonight, with the crowd quickly adapting from Long and Acaster's fun stories to Roberts's quick-fire one-liners and - his centre-piece - generic insults aimed at each member of the audience, read off pre-written cards so as not to cause too much offence. A real student of comedy, his gags are precision-made, he builds up to a fantastic crescendo, and there is one particular line about Where's Wally which is pretty much perfect. Brilliant stuff.

The one-liners continued with Arnab Chanda (pictured) but the pace considerably calmed, with Chanda reading his generally quite dark puns from a little black book (the body count in his set is surprisingly high). There's a lovely, clever logic to his jokes, and he has a great, Demetri Martin-style knack of taking an ostensibly simple bit of observational comedy and whittling it down into a perfectly formed gag of just a few words. And with Arnab, you get a Back To The Future reference thrown in with the comedy. Which is always a bonus.

Finally, musical comedian Tom Basden headlined; one of those sickeningly talented people who can also act and write plays as well as perform stand-up and play numerous musical instruments. His short songs, as ever, went down a storm, but it was also great see Basden interact with the crowd a bit more than I've seen in the past, talking to a lovely couple and stating: "I really can't stress enough the fact that my parents are in" after a particularly smutty track. Best of all though, were the excerpts from his deliberately genre-hopping, over-explained and rather tortuously-written novel Hot Moon. His descriptions of a character "cutting himself from his woolly prison", and complicated use of footnotes are all inspired and elicit big, proper, belly laughs - I'll be first in line when this mini-masterpiece makes it into all good bookshops.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Wayne's World 2011

Who neglected to tell me that Wayne and Garth did a new Saturday Night Live sketch THIS YEAR? Own up.

Still, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey together on the tellybox, looking just as they did 20 years ago; still very funny, still very sweet. Take a look:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Article announcement #3: Feature Spot's Big Sketch Bash

My review of the very excellent Feature Spot's Big Sketch Bash, featuring the likes of The Penny Dreadfuls, Pappy's and Anna and Katy can be found over at British Comedy Guide...

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Alternative Comedy Memorial Society - "a noble failure!"

It pains me to call the (breathe) Alternative Comedy Memorial Society (incorporating The Captain Planet Repertory Theatre Company) a "noble failure" when it was, undoubtedly, a success. But that was the tagline for the evening, and who am I to deviate from the numerous guidelines set down by our comperes, John-Luke Roberts and Thom Tuck, who also gave us pre-approved heckles including "I appreciate what you're trying to do."

While I plugged ACMS in a (semi) professional role for British Comedy Guide, I certainly didn't attend in that capacity - I went because *any* comedy fan would be giddy at the prospect of a line-up that included William Andrews, Terry Saunders, David McNeill, Nadia Kamil and headliner Tony Law, in addition to Messers Tuck and Roberts. But hey, my enthusiasm does have a tendency to transmit to my typing hand, so here are the inevitable few words in celebration of this new comedy night.

The idea behind the club is to be deliberately off-kilter, giving comics the chance to try out new material and unusual ideas - for instance, John-Luke and Nadia are not allowed to perform together as they're an established double-act and "that would be cheating." There are bonus features too, from a "jingle monkey" providing musical interludes to food testing (this week: salted chocolate ice-cream) and all the acts coming together to perform an episode of Captain Planet.

Then there's the more conventional fare of comedians doing stand-up, and that was all rather brilliant too. Nat Luurtsema, Thomas Craine and Dan Antopolski have a great thing going as sketch group Jigsaw and William Andrews (in his regular "Has A Thing On His Head" spot) was, as ever to be honest, inspired. Kudos also to Tom Bell, who did his bit for International Women's Day by offering pieces of "not-for-girls" Yorkie bars to the women in the audience. And Tony Law - well he just makes you ache from laughing.

It was, all in all, pretty special, singular stuff - luckily there are lots more chances to attend.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Article Announcement #2: The Wizard of Oz review for Exeunt

A review of the new production of The Wizard of Oz. It's not that great.

Article Announcement #1: John-Luke Roberts and Thom Tuck interview on BCG

An interview with the uber-talented Thom Tuck and John-Luke Roberts about their new comedy night "The Alternative Comedy Memorial Society (or, The Captain Planet Repertory Theatre Company)" - featuring this exchange:

Anything else to declare...?

I have torn my trousers while showing off. (There will be much showing off).

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Julian Barratt in The Government Inspector

Couldn't be more excited about seeing stupendous comic actor and all-round cool guy Julian Barratt appearing in the Young Vic's Government Inspector, along with Doon MacKichan. Tickets well and truly booked.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A lovely week

I had, as the title suggest A Lovely Week, last week, seeing as I did rather too much fun and interesting stuff to blog about each individually. So here's my "quick" round-up (I'm hedging my bets with those quotation marks, as I bet it ends up being anything but...)

Monday: Kevin Eldon Is Titting About
Kevin Eldon is a *hugely* beloved comedy performer, and when you consider the fact that he's been in (and been consistently brilliant in) Spaced, Big Train, Nighty Night, Lee and Herring, Brass Eye, Black Books and lots, lots more, it's not really surprising. Neither was it surprising that his first solo Edinburgh show was such a hit last year, and so it was great to have another chance to see it, at the excellent Soho Theatre. Not just stand up, but also character comedy, sketches, songs and - in the guise of the pretentious, hilarious Paul Hamilton - poetry, this show is constantly inventive, and the section in which he talks about deciding what sort of comedy he should do (surreal, confessional, observational) gives him the chance to show that he really can do them all.

Tuesday: Jersey Boys
First, thanks to Scott for the rather fancy tickets at the front of the stalls - it's the only way to see a show, dahling. Second, this is a genuinely fun, engaging musical. The star is undoubtedly the Four Seasons back catalogue - I am astonished that the same man wrote Sherry, You're Just Too Good To Be True, Begging AND Oh What A Night (I mean that's just insane) - but there's also a great story here. In particular 'band leader' Tommy's involvement with the Jersey mafia - and the band's willingness to bail him out despite the general whirlwind of chaos that surrounded him - was fascinating. It's a safe bet, but that's meant in the kindest way possible.

Thursday: Karaoke Circus
A new venue offers a new excuse to bang on about how great Karaoke Circus is, so thank goodness this bi-monthly night relocated to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern last week. That's not the only reason to be happy about the move though - it's also just a wonderful venue, all curves, mirrors, booths and pillars, like a mini-spiegeltent. Perfect. And hey, the performers were pretty good too; among many others we had Margaret Cabourn-Smith channelling Beyonce for Crazy In Love (with partner and guest judge Dan Tetsell on Jay-Z duties), Andrew Collins performing a Carter USM song in front of Mr JimBob himself, Thom Tuck getting us dancing with Cee-Lo's F*ck You, and Pappy's covering the first few rows in glitter during It's Raining Men. Utterly, utterly joy-making.

Friday: David Reed and Thom Tuck work-in-progress
The Pleasance in Islington is very much the place for early versions of Edinburgh shows at this time of the year, and each of the wonderful Penny Dreadfuls is using the upstairs space to try out his own material. Which is pretty exciting. On Friday, non-Dreadful Tom Price chatted about The Youth Of Today and doing warm-up for Loose Women in his lovely support slot, before David Reed gave us three new characters. The first - a kid (or, er, slow adult) reading out his awful-brilliant sci-fi story featuring a gun called Kelly Brook - and third - a terribly posh Doctor suffering from amnesia - were both fab. The second was much odder... dead Spaniard in a sombrero presenting a doughnut who's only dream is to be an acrobat, anyone? Bizarre. But a whole lot of fun. Thom Tuck's show, I think it's fair to say, is further down the development track, and promises to be really ruddy great. Ostensibly about Disney's straight-to-DVD films, Thom weaves little tales of heartbreak between intellectual readings of the likes of Little Mermaid III: Arial's Beginning. Admittedly, having a passing interest (and preferably affection for) Disney helps, but thanks to Thom's ability to make, I suspect, pretty much anything entertaining, it certainly isn't essential - I'll look forward to seeing the full thing this Summer.

Saturday PM: Frankenstein
As you might expect from a production directed by classy Danny Boyle and led by classy Benedict Cumberbatch and classy Johnny Lee Miller, this new production from the National Theatre doesn't go down the schlocky horror route, featuring a groaning dullard with a bolt through his neck. Instead, the Creature (I saw Miller in this role, meaning, excitingly, I got to see Cumberbatch flounce about in a fitted coat as Dr F.) is a sensitively soul - if he has one, which is kinda the point - delighted by learning and logic, and obsessed with the pursuit of true love. The script, unfortunately, lets this production down on occasion, and the pace slows when the Creature spends time with a kindly farmer who teaches him to speak, read and think, but the two main performances are flawless and there are some incredibly powerful, disturbing and atmospheric scenes along the way.

Probably the best character comic around at the moment, Colin Hoult is clearly as good an actor as he is a stand-up, and this show is the perfect showcase for his general ace-ness. The longest section comes courtesy of Andy Parker, an ex-army man from Nottin'um who spends his time selling little drawings of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and acting out his own movie script - and while I've seen this character many times (it being his club set regular), Andy's turn of phrase never fails to make me giggle. Then there's the divorced dad desperate to impress his kid with ridiculous promises he can't possibly keep, luvvie actress Anna Mann, and a bullied boy who we see grow up and take grisly revenge over the course of the show. The sketches are linked by songs and little skits from Hoult's supporting cast, and overall it's an incredibly skillful and creative show.

Sunday: Ben Folds, Lonely Avenue Tour
Well kids, we've made it. We've finally got to Sunday; and what a wonderful way to round off the week. I'm a big fan of Folds's collaboration with Nick Hornby - Lonely Avenue is his best album since Rockin' The Suburbs, probably - and so it was great to see him with four other musicians, all doing full justice to the multi-instrumental approach Ben took to these songs. If you were at the Hammersmith Apollo for old Ben Folds Five stuff, you may have been disappointed (though we did get Kate, Underground, Army and - wonderfully - Mess) but this show proved that Ben's built up a great back catalogue since going solo. He was in really playful mood - goofing around for the photographers, who he invited up on stage - and his set lasted a good two and a half hours. It's just a shame you know it'll probably be another couple of years before he's back in the UK...

Friday, February 04, 2011

Why producers should be fighting over Gutted: The Musical

One of Edward Moore's frankly stunning photos.

I have to admit that I'm not sure whether Gutted creators Danielle Ward (book and lyrics) and Martin White (music) actually want big shot producers to be sticking their hands in their pockets for a West End run or worldwide tour of Gutted - and if not, let's pretend this article is called 'Why Gutted Rocks'. But hey, personally nothing would please me more than to see this superlative comic musical run and run, so here are my reasons why some big impresario should be writing cheques to keep it on the stage...

The book is consistently funny

Often, such focus is placed on the songs in a comedy musical (understandably, I know) that the script can be overlooked. It's either just plain weak, or packed with obvious jokes and terrible puns that have you wishing for the band to strike up again. Not so here. The set-up is that Sorrow marries her parents' killer so that she can then murder his own family, and so make him suffer as she has done - don't worry, it's not as depressing as that makes it sound. And thanks to Ward's sharp wit and evident love of the macabre, this story (plus a love interest, Greek chorus and lesbian side-plot) is a constant joy, mixing silliness with darkness and OTT gags with throwaway winners.

The songs are instantly hummable

Anyone familiar with Martin White's work with the Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra, or who has seen his previous musical Psister Psycho, will know that he is one uber-talented songwriter and orchestrator - but Gutted could well be his masterpiece. I have only heard these songs twice - once during the show's run in Edinburgh, and again during the wonderful concert staging that prompted this plea for backers - but I could hum you the tunes to most of the songs right now. I won't, you wouldn't hear it, but I could. My personal favourites are the Elvis (Mud?)-inspired first dance Ballad of Rancid Mortimer, power ballad Don't Need No-One, the Victoriana music-hall of In We Should Trust and slow-jam Lost Years - but frankly, they're all instant classic in my eyes.

The cast is to die for

Yes, the way I see it, the entire cast will stay when Gutted transfers to a massive Shaftesbury Avenue theatre. Why change a thing when you have the Penny Dreadfuls as Sorrow's twisted subconscious, bickering over Thom Tuck milking his big moment? Or Michael Legge as the Vicar, adlibbing lines like "Everytime you sin, God bums your Mum and puts the footage on YouTube"? Or Doc Brown, or Margaret Cabourn-Smith? How about Sara Pascoe, JimBob or Lizzie Roper? No, exactly, you would keep them all and be overjoyed about it too. Then there's our leads. In Edinburgh, Sorrow was played by Helen George who brought an angelic innocence to the little psycho, while in the semi-staged version Isy Suttie was brilliantly bitter - both are fantastic. And stealing many scenes as not only Mr Bewlay but four members of his family, the excellent Colin Hoult is hilarious and, quite simply, irreplaceable.

It's cool as hell

Let's face it, musicals aren't always cool - they can be cheesy, quickly outdated or just a bit too jazz-hands. Gutted, on the other hand, keeps all the things that make the best musicals great (catchy songs and zippy dialogue) while adding a streak of joyous bloodlust and a hugely talented ensemble. And that's pretty darn cool.

I wrote this love-letter to Gutted for British Comedy Guide...

Friday, January 28, 2011

Knock2Bag comedy - 19th Jan

It's a heartening comment on the thirst for comedy in the capital at the moment that a gig held in the middle of the week on a freezing January evening would find the sort of audience that its admittedly brilliant line-up deserved. Shepherd Bush's basement Bar FM was the venue for last week's Knock2Bag night, and it was pleasingly packed for MC Colin Hoult and headliner Paul Foot.

I've not seen Colin Hoult MC a club night before, but - as a committed fan of his genuinely excellent character comedy - it was great to see him compere as both the self-absorbed luvvie actress Anna Man and the Alien (and Aliens, and Predator, and Aliens v Predator...) loving ex-army man Andy Parker; giving the audience a sneak preview of his full-length show (playing at the Soho Theatre next month) across the course of the night.

First on the bill was young Norwegian comic Daniel Simonsen, who won round an originally luke-warm crowd with his increasingly revealing stories about being a quiet, easily-embarrassed guy. He starts by saying, uncontroversially, that it's annoying that flatshare adverts are always looking for 'outgoing' people, but the theme elicited more laughs as it developed and got darker, particularly a section about dwelling on cringey moments for years, and culminating in an irritating little voice in his head asking "why can't we be somebody else?"

The hugely-liked sketch duo Cardinal Burns provided a truly odd ten minutes as their eastern European mini-cab drivers, telling each other apparently filthy stories involving animals without using a word of English, before the sister act (sorry) Toby took to the stage. Comprising of siblings Sarah (overbearing) and Lizzie (downtrodden), this duo might look all sweetness and light but their act managed to cover paedophilia, murder and even bestiality in the blink of an eye. Cute they ain't. But the mix of that surprising edge and the fact that, as sisters, they're willing to be pretty rotten to each other in the pursuit of a laugh, does mean that they're very entertaining indeed.

Character comic Neil Dagley was up next, and he probably got the biggest reaction of the night for his lovely twenty minute set as German skiing champion Flange Krammer. A womanising athlete who finishes his bad jokes with the line "Eat my powder!" may not seem like ground for intelligent comedy but actually this is very clever stuff. When Flange gets two ladies from the audience up on stage for a round of Blind Date, it has the potential be quite uncomfortable, but Dagley manages to create a really warm atmosphere - corpsing little and often certainly helps. Fun stuff.

Much of Tom and Tom aka, er, Totally Tom's set was taken up with sketches featuring a thigh-slapping, mead-quaffing king and his advisor but in fact their best was the first, in which a lady tries to explain what happened during a pretty run of the mill crime in the face of a policeman obsessed with the sort of glamourised violence he's seen in Hollywood action movies. These are very assured comic actors on which eyes should be kept.

The night finished up with Paul Foot being as bizarre as ever, stomping across the stage as he delivered a really great skit about the pitfalls of "van sunglasses" (glasses which help you avoid seeing vans, of course) as if it's traditional "what's with that?" observational comedy. All in all, a high quality night among many high quality nights that Knock2Bag manages to pull together on a frighteningly regular basis.

Written for the new Live section over at British Comedy Guide.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What's the most powerful moment in film?

It's not often I plug something from work here on my blog, but thought you might be interested in a poll we're currently running on FILMCLUB, to find out what people think is the most powerful moment in film. We're not talking 'shocking' necessarily, but the moments that get you 'right there' - whether it's cathartic, weepy, joyful or anger-inducing.

For me, there are a couple that spring immediately to mind - that moment when the toys hold hands in Toy Story 3 is on the FILMCLUB shortlist (they're just suggestions, you can vote for anything) and features highly for me, and I remember balling my eyes out at the point when Alice (in Wonderland) sits down to cry because a dog has brushed away the path meaning she can't find her way home. Not a classic, I realise, but I think the fear of being lost taps into something quite primal.

The list also includes the Odessa Steps massacre from Battleship Potemkin (which I watched for the first time recently and was completely disturbed by), E.T. finally going home, Jimmy Stewart taking a stand in Mr Smith Goes To Washington and *sniff* the death of Bambi's mother; but it'd be great to know what you think. We're collecting votes from anywhere and everywhere, so feel free to leave a comment here, or email me on anna [at] filmclub [dot] org. Thanks!

Friday, January 21, 2011

10 O'Clock Live - A quick review now the dust has settled

As Stu Heritage has astutely pointed out over on The Guardian, Twitter isn't really the best platform for considered, balanced reviews. He says it's "bad" at that, but it's more that it's just not really the point - Twitter's for spur of the moment reactions: "OMG - BEST THING EVER" or "OMG - WORST THING EVER." There are exceptions of course, some clever Tweeters can shape the sum total of their complex thoughts into a single beautiful Tweet, but a lot of it is knee-jerk, as-it-happens stuff. And from a lot of people, the knee-jerk, as-it-happens reaction to Channel 4's 10 O'Clock Live was not a particularly good one. "It's too bright"; "the audience are too loud", "right, you've had twenty minutes, I'm switching off."

But over the course of today, the multitude of little complaints have coalesced into just a few key gripes, really - and they were all expertly skewered by my very own mum in an email earlier...

"It needs to slow down a bit.": Totally. This is absolutely the main thing that needs to be sorted, but luckily it's an easy one to tackle. The interviews especially felt rushed; David Mitchell was just getting into his rather impressive stride when he had to wrap things up. Fewer items will make this a much, much better show.

"Why have Lauren Laverne on board and then not use her?": Well, quite. This was a blatant and bizarre error that the producers do need to work on. I've read a couple of times that she's there because she has the most experience of live broadcasting and so will be able to hold things together, but she needs to do more than a few links and one deeply cringey sketch...

"Does it need four presenters?": Probably not, actually, but - like the other regularly-raised issue that it doesn't really need to be live - this isn't something they're likely to change mid-series.

"Not sure about large studio and large audience.": Again, not something that's going to tweaked any time soon, but having the presenters wander a around what appears to be a huge Dan Flavin exhibition was admittedly a bit odd.

The Good Stuff

The two main issues are the pacing and how Laverne is being used, but other than that, anyone after an intelligent, bold and funny comic current affairs programme should surely be feeling pretty optimistic after last night's first episode. Sure they all looked nervous as hell, but it's obvious that that's purely because they really want it to be good, important even, rather than them not being up to it.

Mitchell is clearly going to be an excellent interviewer who asks the sort of things we all like to think we would put to MPs given the chance, and Charlie Brooker is in a league of his own when it comes to ripping dodgy news coverage to shreds. Laverne, given the right role, can be excellent, and while Jimmy Carr gets a lot of stick, he will provide uber-up-to-date gags every week. And he actually delivered one of the lines of the night with his reference to Alan Johnson's resignation: "We thought it was something tragic that we couldn't make jokes about - apparently it's just a man's life crumbling about him, so that's alright."

Arguably (and it's an argument I'd make), the best bits were when the four presenters just sat around and chatted for a bit. They're all naturally funny, clever people - that's the point - so just free up a bit more time for them to show it, and this could turn into something great.