Sunday, December 30, 2012

That Was The Year That Was 2012

You wouldn't know it from looking at this blog (sorry) but there has been so much cultural stuff to enjoy this year, and - precisely because I've been a bit on the rubbish side - it's probably worth rounding it up...

Kudos to producer James Lowey for putting together School Night, a lovely club night that kicked off in January with a barnstorming performance from Humphrey Ker, whose 40 minute rattle through British kings, queens and (a lot of) wars genuinely reignited my interest in history.

In Edinburgh, Tony Law and Pappy's were rightly lauded for their hilarious, thoughtful and clever shows while David O'Doherty delivered an angst-ridden hour that is probably his best ever.

If you were after sweet, witty and hugely satisfying movies this year there were three that ticked each of those lovely boxes: The Muppets (loads of laugh out loud moments even after mulitple viewings), Avengers Assemble (funny, great fights, massively entertaining), and Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson with heart. Seriously).

I became a Ben Folds Five fan in 2001, which is something of a shame, seeing as they'd split up the year before. It was a long-awaited delight, then, to see them back together and having loads of fun at my favourite music venue Brixton Academy a few weeks back, along with 5000 other devotees. Thanks to a great, generous set list that included the likes of Alice Childress and Song for the Dumped alongside tracks from the new album, and an excited audience in fine voice, it was, probably, my favourite ever gig.

Elsewhere, Jack White proved himself to be the ultimate, timeless rocker at Alexandra Palace, Rufus Wainwright had an uptempo hoot at Hammersmith Apollo and Neil Hannon celebrated his 42nd birthday at the Royal Festival Hall. The whole of Promenade complete with a string quartet? Alison Moyet singing Don't Go and The Certainty of Chance? Party hats for the audience? Yes please.

I didn't get to the theatre as often as I'd have liked this year, but 2012 was bookended by two delightful productions: the charming, inventive and visually beautiful Swallows and Amazons in January, and Twelfth Night which - while not faultless - provided an always-cherished opportunity to see the masterful Mark Rylance in action.

With Grandma's House, The Thick of It, Peep Show, Horrible Histories, Fresh Meat and The Thick of It all returning, there's been some staggeringly great comedy writing on offer this year. And as for debuts, it's hard to look beyond Jenna-Louise Colman, who sparkled as souffle girl, and then out-Doctor'd the Doctor in terms of curiosity, fun and sheer love of life as Clara. The Doctor's smitten, and no wonder. A quick tip o' the hat to the producers of the first Eight out of Ten Cats to air after Jimmy Carr's taxgate too, as normal service was suspended to give time and space for a proper, sincere discussion.

Oh, and the Olympics? With that opening ceremony, and all those fab montages, and Murray winning Gold, and Chad's dad? Not bad.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Twelfth Night - Apollo Theatre

It's been much too long since I saw a straight play, but a combination of Shakespeare and Mark Rylance was always going to tempt me back - albeit a little late, since this is a transfer of the original Globe production.

I'm hardly alone in being a fan of Mr Rylance, but that's only because he's so genuinely, uniquely, charismatically brilliant. Since watching that BBC Four live broadcast of Richard II I've loved his ability to give such an unexpected but utterly natural cadence to Shakespeare's language, and away from the Bard I've also had the pleasure of seeing him as the British Bacchus in Jerusalem, and in La Bête, with that notorious, hilarious 25 minute speech.

It's a real thrill, then, to see him as the mourning Olivia in Twelfth Night. I didn't study the play, but have seen it once before when John Lithgow played Malvolio with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and as far as I can tell, that's usually the role that gets the "big" casting. With Stephen Fry playing the pompous - but harshly treated - steward, maybe that's the case again here, but enjoyable as he is (and he really is a commanding presence), Fry is well and truly trumped here in the 'comic performance' stakes by Rylance.

Should Olivia be the big comic role in Twelfth Night? Should she be more ridiculous than Malvolio? Than her household of scheming fops and drunks, even? Maybe it wasn't Will's plan... but it sure is fun. And it's all there in the text to be exploited, with Olivia switching from pious mourner to a love-struck girl hopelessly obsessed with the cross-dressing Viola (Johnny Flynn) in an instant - Rylance, as ever, just turns it up to eleven.

Away from Rylance and Fry, there are lovely performances to be found throughout the production though. In particular, the ever-fabulous Samuel Barnett shines as Viola's long-lost brother Sebastian - making the most of a role that could easily get lost thanks to his perfection of an incredulous "what the heck is going on?" expression.

There's also a gorgeous scene during which Viola's lord Orsino (Liam Brennan) sees his "page boy" in a whole new light - Brennan's comic timing is a delight as he tries to steal a glance or two, and is surprised at what he finds, and what he feels.

Like the RSC production, this again struggled to deal with the drawn-out "reveal" of the final act when the characters finally work out what we've known all along, but it's a minor quibble buried in a production that is big on fun, and full of performances to revel in.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Things I have enjoyed recently

I think it's fair to say I've been a bit lax at updating this blog recently. Near on three months without a post certainly counts as "a bit crap". So, more for my benefit than yours, here's a round up of some very lovely things that I've had the good fortune to read/watch/experience in the intervening period, in handy tweet-sized slices...

Andy Murray winning the US Open
AMAZING. Listening to 5Live deep into the night gave it a real 'event' feel, and #takeyourtimeyoudick is undoubtedly the best hashtag of the year.

Sam Fletcher at the Hen & Chickens 
Bad magic and counter-intuitive inventions have rarely been so fun. Sam has bags of charm and loads of ideas - basically it's a big old smile of a show.

Rubicon by Tom Holland
The real triumph of this book - which covers the transition from Roman republic to Roman empire - is that you actually care about the people involved. Cicero has been murdered? NOOOOOOOO!

Treasures of Ancient Rome on BBC Four
Fortuitous timing meant I watched this while reading Rubicon and it was BRILLIANT. Who needs characterless Greek sculptures when you can have flabby old Pompey?

The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind by Ben Folds Five
BFF are back together! Hooray! Til their Brixton Academy gig in December, we've got this little gem to keep us going - Away When You Were Here is my favourite by a mile.

The last ever Karaoke Circus
Let's hope it's not actually the last ever, but if so, Chris Addison singing The Rainbow Connection followed by Pappy's leading the audience in Take That's Never Forget is a good way to go out.

The Thick Of It on BBC Two
Another 'last ever' that might actually come back with a special edition every now and again. Brilliant dialogue, incredible performances, something to say... an important bit of TV, basically.

Tony Law's Shitbox at The Lion
Mr Tony Law trying out some new stuff, the Behemoth performing an extended version of their Stand By Me sketch and Tom Bell throwing out bad Stag do ideas like MEATHAMMER. Nice.

The Time-Traveller's Guide To Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
This book doesn't tell you one thing that "happened" in the Middle Ages. Instead, it tells you how people lived - what they ate, how they earned money, what they spent it on. Really different, and really good.

Jack White at Alexandra Palace
The former White Stripes dude is a proper rock star who would have shone in any era, and while Ally Pally isn't great for the vertically challenged, just hearing Hardest Button To Button live is enough.

Fresh Meat on Channel 4
I completely missed the first series, but have caught up since the second has started airing, and it's just so much better than a comedy-drama about a bunch of students has any right to be.

Djokovic vs Tsonga at the ATP World Tour Finals
Live tennis! At the O2!

Neil Hannon's 42nd birthday gig at the Royal Festival Hall
A teeny-bit-tipsy Neil Hannon is a wonderful thing, and even better when combined with fluffed lines, Promenade from start to finish with a string quartet and appearances from Tom Chaplin (below) and Alison Moyet.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dissecting Frogs With Stewart Lee

I had a lovely bank holiday, thank you for asking. I went to see dodos and dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum with my one-year-old niece Dorothy, and I read Stewart Lee's How I Escaped My Certain Fate from cover to cover. The latter I should have done much earlier; the former was reasonably timed.

The book is partly a look back on Lee's return to stand up - having quit in 2001 - and partly an in-depth analysis of three fully-transcribed shows. I should say that when I've seen Stewart Lee live, I've often found myself buying into the cool, superior character he portrays on stage far too much, taking it to heart, and, ultimately, pushing back against it. But among several things his book has prompted me to do - look up the acts he mentions that I don't know about, for example, and generally Be Better Read - I'll certainly be heading to Go Faster Stripe to buy a few of his shows. As he says, so much is in the performance that it feels like that's the proper way to round off the book.

I am the last to say this of course, but How I Escaped My Certain Fate genuinely is, as the quotes suggest, a book that all comedy fans would do well to read. The passages about his career are honest and entertaining, he's really generous in his praise of peers from Michael McIntyre to Simon Munnery, and, in the annotated transcriptions, the book takes my previously-discussed love of dissecting comedy frogs to the nth degree. It's completely fascinating.

Sam Simmons says that people often describe his work as "random" but that it's quite the opposite - everything's there for a reason. I'd love to read his annotations on one of his own shows. Tony Law actually does it to some extent as he goes along of course, though he certainly doesn't give everything away on stage, and there's loads of swan's feet stuff going on beneath the surface too. Claudia O'Doherty's thesis on The Telescope would be a hoot, and it'd be wonderful if John Luke Roberts were to explain in devastating detail exactly why every single one of his mild insults is funny.

I've only really given any thought to the mechanics of comedy over the last few years, but it occurred to me recently that there were little seeds planted much earlier than that. When I was doing A-level English Language, we were asked to analyse a tv or radio interview from a linguistic point of view, and I chose two comics: Jim Carey, who spoke to Richard and Judy, and Johnny Vegas, who was on The Jonathan Ross Show.

For my essay, I essentially tried to explain how they were using language to subvert the conventions of the chat show and derail the interview, by asking questions themselves, for example, or referring to things happening off camera. I was trying, in a rather simple way, to explain why and how they were funny, and I loved doing it, spending much more time on the assignment than was necessary. I enjoy doing it now too with live comedy - in fact, I find that when I'm writing about an act I really love I do the analysis bit first because I've so enjoyed how they shaped and elicited the laughs, and then I have to go back and add in the glowing value judgements later.

There's a great passage, late on in the book, where Lee stresses the importance of "rhythm, pitch, tone and pace" in stand-up, and while I have, genuinely, attempted to include these when writing about comedy, I'll certainly be making even more of a concerted effort to do so in the future. So: seek out influential acts, read more, spend money with laudable boutique online establishments and try to give a more rounded report of the shows I see. That's my personal response to How I Escaped My Certain Fate.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Thoughts on the Edinburgh Comedy Awards 2012 nominations

I've written a little piece for British Comedy Guide about this year's Really Rather Impressive nomination lists for Edinburgh Comedy Awards 2012 - and you can read it right here. Pappy's! Claudia O'Doherty! Tony Law! Ben Target! All the rest! Hooray!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Edinburgh Fringe 2012: Tony Law - Maximum Nonsense

I've read a lot of very lovely reviews of Tony Law's Maximum Nonsense (Stand One, 12:30pm) over the last couple of weeks, and in that time I've noticed that there's a little theme emerging. Not just that they're all positively overflowing with praise, that's to be expected (and hugely welcomed), but that the enthusiasm is coupled with something along the lines of: "Flipping heck; Tony's tight this year."

Some who are already Law fans might balk at this a little, but you've only got to look at the ever-impressive (and continuing) improvement-trajectory of David O'Doherty to see that - if it's done right - the most charmingly shambolic of comedians can tighten up the screws and not only avoid losing what made them great in the first place, but actually get better and better along the way. O'Doherty did it right - and so has Law.

Given this, it might be kinda surprising to hear that this year's show is actually more surreal than Go!. There's discussion of Vikrate (a martial art which combines his Viking and Pirate heritage), Pol Pot material, references to Marcus Aurelius and a magic dragon, a trip around Northern Europe using mainly accents, and a gorgeous set piece in which Tony attempts to emulate some of his favourite musical comics, like Demetri Martin. Trouble is - as he reveals in a mighty drip-feed of huge belly-laugh moments - he has no musical training to speak of, and a wandering comedy style that doesn't lend itself to being accompanied by that steel drum he's got casually slung around his neck.

But all of these wonderful, warped ramblings - gloriously funny in and of themselves - are this year wrapped up in a beautifully paced show that feels easy and really satisfying. Tight, you might say.

Not that Tony leaves off there. Having impressively ticked Structured Absurdism off the list, Maximum Nonsense also continues last year's trend of Law Saying Important Stuff. Stuff, for example, about gender politics - like how rape victims can be made to feel like the criminal. And about comedians - those he admires and those he resents (not always mutually exclusive), and about the nature of comedy itself. About father-and-son-hood. About roots. About being a good guy, or otherwise. And you know what, the Structured Absurdism helps shape the Saying Stuff, and vice versa. Now that's neat.

All of this is framed by Law's now-trademark self-analysis and running commentary, and culminates in a magical finale of real pathos, ridiculously catchy song - and lots of elephants. It's warm, smart, bonkers and genuinely insightful - no doubt about it, Tony's got some big ideas to match that booming delivery, and the laughs are as fulsome as ever. Put simply, Maximum Nonsense is a rather special show, carefully put together by a rather special performer.

Edinburgh Fringe 2012: Pappy's - Last Show Ever

When I sat down to write this, I thought I'd begin with the line: "I always knew Pappy's had this show in them." But you know what, I'm not actually sure that's true. I knew, of course, that they could create a stellar sketch show - they are one of the finest sketch groups around and they do fun better than any act I can think of (you can take the Fun out of Pappy's etc...) But I have to admit, I didn't see Last Show Ever (Pleasance Dome, 8.20pm) coming. It's a ruddy tour de force.

Ben, Matthew and Tom have clearly decided that just writing their best sketches and stringing them together into an hour of big knockabout laughs isn't enough - though believe me, the quality and inventiveness of the sketches on show here means that it definitely would have been. No, this year they've decided to frame those skits in such a way that delivers something that sketch comedy very rarely attempts, let alone knocks out of the park: proper emotion.

The premise that allows for this is a really clever one - we meet the boys in the twilight of their lives, looking back on what turned out to be their last ever show, and trying to remember what drove them apart. Was it Tom's new fortune, gained through the inheritance of a glove shop? Maybe not, but it gives us one heck of a good glove-based song. Or perhaps it was Matthew's celebrity status, achieved by excelling on a TV game show that required him not to be able to do things (which it turns out he's really good at, ironically)? Or could it be that Ben found love that night, and - as we see in a really charming Up-style montage - left his friends for a long and generally happy marriage with the girl in the front row.

As Pappy's piece together that final show, we get to see the sketches that they performed, the best of which includes a wordless routine that has very different meanings depending which music accompanies it, and their take on the dynamic between Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow. Plus, we hear their memories and commentary and - eventually - the true story behind that fateful show... All in all it's intricately written (bang-on-the-mark callbacks and reveals abound), hugely funny and, perhaps most impressively of all, genuinely emotional.

Monday, August 06, 2012

London 2012: The Olympics, by a fan

Like many people, I have been preparing myself for the London Olympics for seven years; and like what I suspect is a minority of those people, I have been looking forward to it the whole time.

It's just not in me to be cynical about the Olympics. I've devoured every moment since Barcelona '92, which I watched aged 6, and the idea of this festival of endeavour and human emotion coming to my home country was just incredibly exciting. I didn't know, back in 2005, that London would be my home town too, come 2012.

All of this means, of course, that I have watched cynics and non-sports fans alike take to these Games with such enthusiasm with a massive and admittedly smug-tinged smile on my face. I knew it'd be great. I just knew it. We have Danny Boyle to thank for getting things off to such a fun, quirky, clever and dramatic start of course, but since then, the athletes, the organisers and the Beeb have taken up the metaphorically-appropriate baton to create something really rather special. And we're only halfway through.

When tickets first went on sale, I was one of those who missed out entirely, despite applying for what I thought was a judicious mix of the blockbuster and the offbeat. When it came to Round 2, I was up at 6am, texting my complaints to Rachel Burden on 5Live as the site crumbled - but I came out of it with Handball and Basketball tickets. Both games I knew little to nothing about. It didn't matter.

And since then I've been incredibly lucky - my housemates were quick on the draw when another round of tickets were released, and we bagged Archery (at Lord's, for goodness sake) and the table tennis. Then, my good friend Rob offered me a ticket for the athletics stadium itself. As I said; lucky.

My excitement for the Games only wobbled about two weeks ago, when the constant drip feed of travel warnings (threats, almost) started to grate. "Have you thought about walking to work? Why not try cycling? Don't go in the Games Lanes! You should probably watch the road races at home! (That one really annoyed me) Have you planned your travel? Have you? Well, have you?"

But if the purpose of all these messages and warnings was to keep London moving during the Games, well, job done. It's busy, sure, but it's fine. More than fine - it's impressive.

And so to the sport. It was archery first for me, a very civilised start made even more so by the fact that we took a cab to Lord's in the morning sunshine, and hopped out 10 yards from the entrance. The Games Makers were cheerful, the security checks quick and unintrusive - we went from taxi to Lord's bar in 15 minutes flat. It's a beautiful venue - I'll certainly be back for some cricket before long - and archery is a surprisingly entertaining spectator sport; fast-paced and generally closely fought. Fun, basically.

St John's Wood to Docklands is not an inconsiderable journey, but we made it over to ExCel centre in plenty of time for table tennis in the afternoon; a very squished trip on the DLR made more bearable by some lovely views of the new cable car, the Greenwich Arena (aka the O2) and glimpses of the Olympic Park itself.

Again, getting in was straightforward, and the organisation inside - to say there was also judo and boxing going on in the same venue - really good. The event we saw was a new 'Davis Cup' style tournament, with countries competing in singles and doubles rubbers. GB, it has to be said, were utterly out-gunned, and the atmosphere went a little flat as a result. A minor quibble in a day that really meant a lot to me - I'd been to the Olympics. Ruddy hell.

As tens of millions of us have experienced over the weekend, watching the Games on TV has almost been as brilliant as being there live this year. I've barely been able to tear myself away for basic things like shopping and eating - what if I miss another Gold for Team GB? Another heart-breaking failure? Just one more event. Just one more game, then I'll go. What, Murray's on court again in a few minutes? *Orders takeaway*.

Yesterday, my parents travelled down for Handball and we got the Javelin train from St Pancras to get to the Stadium. If anything, it's too quick (I didn't get to point out that cable car!) and we saw more Games Makers than passengers on the way to the platform. "Crowds?" Mum said, "What crowds?"

Well, we found them at the Olympic Park, which now the Athletics has started is basically rammed from about 8am. But again, it was a breeze getting in, and we got 5Live on the radio so that we could listen in to Murray's frankly staggering win against Federer. If you read my love letter to tennis and Andy, you'll appreciate that I was rather delighted about this - he's such a fighter, got such flair, has a beautifully dry sense of humour and... well, Federer has clothes made based on the fact that he's going to win. Murray has tweets of support written on his bag. You get my point.

Handball - aka run-and-score - is a pretty agricultural sport, but heaps of fun to watch (and, I suspect, even more so to play), and you can't help but clap along with We Will Rock You, can you? We chatted to the French guy next to us, checked the athletics results on his girlfriend's phone, and watched Bolt's semi-final on the little monitor down by the judges. Have I used the word 'fun' yet?

To round off the weekend, we headed to the centre of the park to watch the 100m final on the big screen, and there were huge cheers as Bolt finally decided to use his top gear and break the Olympic record. Bolt travelled 100 metres in 9.63 seconds; TFL and the Games organisers got me from the Park to my sofa in 60 minutes. Good going all round, I'd say.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

'Extra' shows at the Edinburgh Fringe

One of my favourite things about the Fringe is the chance to see great comedians doing something other than their usual stand-up. I've written an article about it over on British Comedy Guide, with lovely contributions from Beta Males, Sarah Bennetto, Debs Frances-White and Hannah Gadsby, and mentions for Mark Watson's ace-sounding Edinborolympics and more. Please take a look!

Monday, July 09, 2012

Thoughts on... Andy Murray

So, like, (to start this blog post style) I've been excited before sporting events before. I've even been a tad nervy on occasion - namely, on the occasion of England playing in the quarter finals of major football tournaments. But, I have to say, I don't think I ever truly believed people who said they felt physically sick before matches.

Then Murray got to the final of Wimbledon.

As the TV build-up swelled to an epic crescendo of strings-backed montage, I was so buzzing with nervous energy I had to get up and have a wander around the flat just to shake it out. I felt properly ill. I tell you, I couldn't even finish my Kettle crisps.

Of course, 24 hours on from That Speech, everyone's a Murray fan. Nice guy, i'n he? But those of us who've always been in his corner know the truth. You thought he was unemotional. Or, weirdly, too emotional. Grumpy, or impassive. Angry, or dull. A traitor to the English. Too British for the Scots. Sports Personality of the Year contender? THAT'S ironic.

Not that I'm contrarily annoyed that he's gained so many new supporters; I'm utterly delighted. I've always loved the way he plays, the dry sense of humour, the aggression, the fight, the moments of inspired brilliance that can elevate him even beyond the heights of 'the big three'. Now even more people can revel in all of that.

For me, sport is at its best when there are fascinating storylines to follow - if you drop into a mid-season match between Everton and Cardiff City in complete isolation then yes, you might find it a little dull unless you happen upon an eight goal thriller. But give it a little time and you start to see the appeal. And tennis, more than most sports I think, is perfect for generating those little plots and sub-plots.

It's so much about the individuals - you follow your favourites not just across the course of a season or until they get transferred to Bayern, but throughout an entire career. Year upon year of injuries, rivalries, tantrums and, if you're lucky, the odd triumph.

So, to all those finally won round by some superb play and a heartfelt speech I say: It's undoubtedly tough to be a Murray fan, but just imagine how it'll feel when he wins his first major. Tears? You ain't seen nothing yet. He'll say he did it for us, and he'll mean it.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Five things I'm looking forward to

1. Monsters University

Well liked, but still under-praised, Monsters Inc. is one of Pixar's very best - for me, only behind the Toy Story films. Sully and Mike at college? Yes please. (But not until next year, unfortunately.)

2. Veep

Like everyone, really. Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell rarely put a foot wrong, and word is this HBO sitcom warms up to continue their fine contribution to comedy. Bigger budgets but, I'd imagine, the same Thick Of It sensibility. Starts on Sky Atlantic on Monday.

3. Danny Baker and The Muppets

It's all a bit sketchy at the moment, but do we *really* need any more details? It's Danny Baker working with the Jim Henson Workshop. Insane.

4. The Michael Grandage season

Having seen lots of his productions during an astonishingly strong tenure at the Sheffield Crucible, I am very much #teamgrandage. His season of five starry productions should be brilliant.

5. It's Kevin with Kevin Eldon

Well it's about ruddy time, eh? The comedian's comedian (along with Stewart Lee. And Tony Law. Oh, and Daniel Kitson - but that's good company) gets his own BBC show. Huzzah!

Handball and Basketball at the Olympics...

...have *definitely* always been my favourite sports. Did I not mention that before?

(Can't wait!)

Monday, June 11, 2012

...and thoughts on Moonrise Kingdom

So praised for so long, there's actually been a bit of a Wes Anderson backlash of late - with 'detached' starting to be considered 'cold', and his last film, the stop-motion Fantastic Mr Fox, seen as too clever by half; of more interest to adults than kids.

But Moonrise Kingdom has actually melted a few critics' frosty hearts - I know, a Wes Anderson movie - and having watched it in a pleasingly packed screening this Sunday, I can see why. It's just gorgeous. 

On a New England island about to be battered by shoreline-shifting storms, two misfit kids run away together to have a swallows and amazons adventure far away from bullying Scouts and disinterested parents. Good start.

It looks, as you'd expect, beautiful - the attention to detail in everything from the rugged landscape, to the dolls-house style buildings and Scout Master Ward's (Edward Norton) pristine uniform is just a joy to pore over. But this movie has heart too, and more than that, it even goes a bit Goonies, a bit Addams Family Values summer camp by the time we get to the final third; the formerly warring kids uniting against the adults to evade re-capture. 

Most the warmth comes from the two young leads - Kara Haywood and Jared Gilman - both newcomers, and both really lovely, really watchable actors. There's certainly shades of Son of Rambow about their commitment to independence and imagination (a very good thing indeed) and the way their relationship is portrayed is sweet but never patronising. 

It's testament to Bruce Willis and Ed Norton too, that in a film that also stars Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton, it's very much the former pair that you're hoping to see more of.

I probably don't need to put it in so many words, but I ruddy loved it. Stunning to look at, genuinely funny, genuinely odd and full of great performances.  

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Thoughts on Prometheus

(No plot spoilers, but if you're really excited about the film, maybe give this a miss 'til you've seen it.)

Having seen bits of the Alien movies but none of them the whole way through (in fact, the one I've seen most of is Alien vs Predator, which I don't *believe* is the fans' favourite) I think it's fair to say I'm not really the best person to discuss where Prometheus sits in the Alien canon. I didn't even see the Michael Fassbender viral until five minutes ago (though I knew it existed, I am on Twitter after all...)

But I love my sci-fi, and perhaps my crushing lack of knowledge did mean that I came to the film with lower expectations than most - and was perfectly willing (indeed only equipped) to view it as a standalone project. Seems a shame, then, that even my rather modest expectations weren't, for the most part, met.

To start with the positives, though, the visuals are pretty stunning. The opening, sweeping sequence which takes us whizzing across a Scandanavian-style (but deeply alien-with-a-lower-case-a) landscape is a majestic start, and the white, angular interiors of the titular spaceship are wonderfully retro. And while the 3D is forgettable, it's not, at least, actively distracting - the only major flaw in an otherwise massively enjoyable Avengers Assemble.

Plus, Fassbender is as impressive as ever - he's a charismatic cyborg, and while you might think it a tough ask to ham it up as a robot, he certainly manages it - and Charlize Theron and Idris Alba, while not given a whole lot to do, certainly give the Prometheus crew a bit of class.

But when we get down to the elements that transform a film from a spectacle into an experience - engaging plot, likable characters, quotable script - they're disappointingly flawed, or lacking altogether. The dialogue, in particular, is pedestrian, and Noomi Rapace's character Elizabeth Shaw is such a bland presence that I genuinely didn't realise that she was the lead character until the third reel.

There are a couple of plotty questions left unanswered for a decent post-cinema chat - the issue is whether you'll still be thinking about the film by the time you get to the pub. It may look great, but ultimately my main problem with Prometheus is simply... it's not a whole lot of fun.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Edinburgh Fringe programme is out today...

Always a fun day. Looking forward to flicking through, highlighting, turning corners, spotting Idil Sukan's brilliantly distinctive photography (*cough* looking to see if any acts have quoted my reviews) and making a plan... Order your programme here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

BBC's The Hollow Crown

Well I don't know about you, but I'm terribly excited about the BBC's Hollow Crown season - new productions of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V and Richard II. Tom Hiddleston, Ben Wishaw, Rory Kinnear? Don't mind if I do.

I have to say, much as I like the lovely Loki (his Anglo-Saxon insult in Avengers Assemble is a pretty astounding moment) it's Richard II I'm really looking forward to. The BBC nerds among you will remember that a performance of the play was broadcast live from the Globe Theatre on the first night of BBC Four, and I was completely captivated by Mark Rylance's almost comic portrayal of the verbose king (you won't necessarily remember that detail).

Later, I saw Kevin Spacey's modern dress version at the Old Vic and couldn't help but be disappointed. Worse, I was pretty bored. I'll grant that Rylance's performance may have given me a skewed - and overly sympathetic - view of the character, but Spacey's Rick 2 was seemed to me so lifeless that there was nothing tragic about his overthrow.

It's the star of The Hour (which I really liked) Ben Wishaw who takes the role in the BBC version - with Patrick Stewart 'guesting' as John of Gaunt - and I would imagine he'll play it somewhere in between. It's a truth universally acknowledged that he's a superb actor, so I can't wait to see what he comes up with...

Sunday, April 29, 2012

My final #wwbw post for Dork Adore: Community and more

I'm having to move on from my super-fun column at Dork Adore, so I've done a final round-up, talking about my favourite shows from the 3 years I've been there (Psychoville, Ashes To Ashes and Doctor Who all make an appearance) and offering a final review - Community.

I'm pretty much the last person to see it, but if you're as lame as me, you can get the first series on DVD and series 2 is currently showing on Sony Television Channel. It's as clever as it is sweet, steeped in a love of pop culture and incredibly performed. Get some.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

10 things we learned from #ACMS at The Vandella

1. Alexis Dubus is a master upstager.
As Marcel Lucont, the ACMS board member did a 'mime' on a pitch black stage (in front of an audience also plunged into darkness) and got the biggest laughs of the night. And then reappeared from backstage after the interval. Magnifique.

2. Tom Bell could be funny in a cardboard box.
And was. Very. Tom offers up a different little gem of an idea at every ACMS, and this time he was an Aussie motivational speaker called Cornelius, coaxed out of his box by kind words written down by the audience.

3. Sam Schäfer can draw a mean graph or two.
He'll be funny and charming while he presents them, too. Plus, his graphs involve dinosaurs and ninjas, so way cooler than most.

4. Morgan Murphy should gig here more.
A one-liner specialist from Portland, she's really bold, loads of fun and instantly likable.

5. Josie Long will soon turn 30.
And she's fine with it! So she should be. A properly glorious set based around MSN's extraordinarily fanciful 30 Things To Do Before You're 30 including 'quit your job'.

6. Nadia Kamil wants (half of) you to have a smear test.
And will rap you into submission while looking super-cool in braces and shades.

7. Max and Iván are superb.
Okay, maybe not learned but reaffirmed. Incredible performers with witty, complex ideas - I can't wait for their new show 'Con Artists'.

8. John-Luke Roberts really doesn't like cricket.
But Thom Tuck loves it. And knows a LOT about it. And combines those qualities to write some wonderfully groan-worthy cricket puns.

9. If you sit near the front at #ACMS, you will be involved.
Luckily, it won't be humiliating, and might even be fun. I was Yoko to Steve Pretty's Lennon and jumped along to Van Halen with Ben Target and the rest of the front row.

10.  The Vandella would be a great new permanent home.
It's brand new and it's really lovely. Can see myself spending a few more nights there over the coming months.

* Picture by ACMS documenter extraordinaire, Isabelle aka Diamond Geyser.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

By the beard of Zeus! Anchorman returns...

One of the most quotable films of all time, up there with the greatest comedies, and one of my favourites full stop. Huuray for its imminent return...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Away We Go and Crazy, Stupid, Love - superior romcoms

I love a romcom as much as the next person, but it's been a real pleasure to see two particularly brilliant ones over the last couple weeks. First up was Away We Go, a film that raised a small ripple of appreciation when it was released, but has probably found its indie, put-a-bird-on-it audience, me included, on DVD/Blu-ray.

Unflashily directed by Sam Mendes and starring The American Office's John Krasinski and Bridesmaids' Maya Rudolph, it follows a couple as they travel across the States, trying to find the best place to bring up their unborn child. And it's lovely. Actually not as twee as I'd expected, there are some big laughs here, but importantly you just enjoy spending time with this charming and very grounded couple. Perfectly cast and with some surprisingly lyrical passages of dialogue, it's a little gem.

With Steve Carell (The Office again, of course), Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone on board, Crazy, Stupid, Love got rather more attention in cinemas, but the Portlandia set shouldn't dismiss it on that account.

Carell plays Cal, a once-happily married man who finds himself being coached in picking up women by the super-smooth Jacob (Gosling) when his wife tells him she wants a divorce. Along the way we also learn about the lives and messed-up loves of Cal's kids and even Jacob himself, as lessons are learned and soulmates united.

Ok, so the fact that Jacob's alpha male posturing apparently works on every single woman he meets rankles a little, but in the main this is a hugely likeable and big-hearted film with a neat twist. The performances are what really make it - but then that's exactly what we've come to expect from the likes of Carell and Stone. Great fun.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Muppets - Dork Adore review

"The Muppets mean a lot to me. I watched The Great Muppet Caper over and over as a kid, and when I was 11 I wrote a piece about myself in which I said I don’t watch much TV (how things change) but that I always made time for Shooting Stars and Muppets Tonight (ok, maybe they don’t change so much…)"

I totally reviewed The Muppets for Dork Adore. Check it out here...

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Sex With A Stranger - Trafalgar Studios

Anyone who’s seen more than a few token minutes of the above-par BBC Three sitcom Him and Her will probably have picked up at least two things: writer Stefan Golaszewski has an impeccable ear for dialogue; and Russell Tovey is your go-to guy for a slubby everyman. Oh, and perhaps one extra thing – Tovey clearly relishes and excels at delivering Golaszewski’s uber-naturalistic lines.

It’s no surprise, then, that this pairing works just as well on stage; Sex with a Stranger is 80 minutes of slow-burn but high-laugh-rate comedy that gets as many laughs from the uncomfortable silences as the gags. Tovey stars in the three-hander along with Jaime Winstone – these two being the strangers in question – and Naomi Sheldon as Adam’s (Tovey) long-suffering and highly-strung girlfriend Ruth.

We only meet Ruth about half way through the play, however, the first 40 minutes or so revealing how Adam and Grace (Winstone) meet on a night out, and head off back to Grace’s flat via a long and rather awkward bus and cab ride filled with circular, gossamer-light conversations about how great the club was, and that living five minutes from Homebase must be ‘handy’.  

It may be brand new and, probably, never to be revisited, but it’s actually quite a sweet relationship and it provides the majority of the humour – Winstone is hugely likable and very funny as the down-to-earth, giggly Grace. It’s only when we start to get drip-fed information about Adam’s ‘real’ life back home that things start to turn from amusingly clumsy, to distinctly uneasy.

The first real action we see from Ruth is a good five minutes spent meticulously ironing a shirt – the very shirt, of course, that Adam wears on his night with Grace. It’s an uncomfortably long period of time to watch someone completing a domestic chore (there were stifled laughs in the audience, and one man gave her a brief ironic round of applause when she finished) but that is of course the point. We need to see the care and attention that Ruth has put into ironing the shirt for us to start reassessing how we feel about the affable Adam.

After this scene we’re all set up to be on Ruth’s side, but as we’re taken back through the history of their relationship – from meeting at uni to tortuous discussions about whether to get some new bookshelves – we start to detect a few, shall we say ‘issues’ on Ruth’s behalf that complicate things a little. She’s clingy, paranoid and, to be honest, quite dull, but then dullness is no excuse for infidelity, and she clearly has a lot to be paranoid about.

Ultimately there is no big revelation or showdown, so the ending feels pretty flat, but there’s no doubt that Sex With A Stranger is a beautifully written and impressively acted play in which the little details of genuinely real conversation are the real star. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Swallows and Amazons - Vaudeville Theatre

At various points in the past, I have said that four of my favourite performers - Ben Folds, Tim Minchin, Neil Hannon and Rufus Wainwright - should all have a pop at writing a musical.

Wainwright, true to diva form, jumped straight to opera instead, and Folds is too busy having a big old telly career at the moment to concern himself with the stage. But Minchin and Hannon have both followed my sage advice (it may not *all* have been down to me, admittedly) and while the former has a runaway hit on his hands with the superb Matilda, Hannon has quietly busied himself with putting some delightful songs to director Tom Morris's (War Horse) version of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons.

Despite being from Northern Ireland, Hannon does "quintessentially English" remarkably well. We saw that with the brilliant cricket concept album Duckworth Lewis Method (still waiting for you to perform live together again, guys) and here he has provided a charming, decidedly middle-England-tinged score and songs for this story of imagination and adventure. This isn't a fully-fledged jazz-hands musical, but then that wouldn't suit this production, which has a simple, hand-made feel - the band also act as stage-hands, using whatever happens to be lying around as props and scenery. Just like kids do.

And much as I love Hannon's songs, it really is the innovative, make-do-and-mend staging that makes this production such a joy. The first half errs on the slow side - the youngest members of the audience perhaps understandably got a little restless as we reached the 70 minute mark - but the second is a delight. We are increasingly drawn further into the children's games, and particularly the creative Titty's pirate stories, and at times are actually invited to get involved. It takes a little time to get going, but it's easily more than worth it for the moments of magic to be found in the second half. 

School Night - New Red Lion Theatre

School Night - a new monthly comedy night at the home of #ACMS - has a great idea at its heart, and easily lives up to the potential, with warmth, intelligence and humour to spare. Comedians are invited to perform a set based around their own specialist subject, and, keeping to the theme, there's a tuck shop during the interval offering Double Dips and Rainbow Drops. Education, laughs and, as MC Matthew Crosby (Pappy's) pointed out, a sugar high the likes of which most of the audience hadn't experienced in over a decade. What's not to like?

Nothing, it turns out. The first gig was one of the most entertaining 'mixed-bill' nights of comedy I've been to in ages, and that's thanks in no small part to Crosby who, as a former teacher himself, had some fantastic stories to tell - including responding to a wayward football in the belly with verbal and physical violence in front of an entire Year 7 class.

Steve Pretty gave us a taster of his evolution-of-music Edinburgh show Origin of the Pieces, while the Festival of the Spoken Nerd triumverate Helen Arney (PSHE), Steve Mould (Science) and Matt Parker (maths) were all in their respective elements - I particularly loved Mould's hilarious take on shapes of constant width. But perhaps best of all was seeing Penny Dreadfuls member/alumnus Humphrey Ker fight through illness to bounce around the stage, fizzing with excitement at the chance to deliver his own potted history of Britain 1066-2000. Funny, fascinating and, ultimately, very touching, it was something quite special to witness, actually.