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.