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!