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.