February 2, 2015, Posted by Richard in Culture, Reviews, Theatre & Comedy

Daniel Kitson: ‘Tree’ review

Half the drama when it comes to Daniel Kitson performances occurs weeks before, when you are sat at your computer doing battle with the overloaded website server of the theatre you’re trying to buy tickets for. Luckily, this time we were successful in snapping up some seats for his new play Tree, at the Old Vic.

First performed last summer in Manchester, Kitson has revived his two-hander with fellow comedian Tim Key for this short London run. In some ways, if you get rid of the extraordinary tree that dominates his set, and where Kitson spends the entirety of the performance, and lose Key too, this could possibly have been another classic Kitson storytelling show – two strangers slowly getting to know each other, their dramas unfolding, exchanging hilarious, snappy dialogue along the way. Crucially, though, unlike the vast majority of those shows, Kitson swaps sentimentality for beautifully disguised bathos, and hints at the darker side of human nature.

Tim Key’s unnamed character arrives swearing and shouting, thinking he’s late for a picnic date with a long-forgotten girlfriend. A bloke up in the tree (Kitson), works out that he’s actually an hour early due to confusion with daylight saving times, and the stage is then set for the two to spar and question each other. It turns out Kitson’s bloke in the tree moved there as a protest against council measures and, nine years later, is now squatting there.

The characters feel each other out, teasing each other with new revelations and dropping in hints about their real motivations, just as Kitson teases the audience. There are long asides as Key’s character obsesses over the tree-dweller’s toilet habits and eating arrangements, and they bicker about miner details before returning to their respective stories. Of course this is where Kitson’s superb use of language comes to the fore, both with delighting in words such as ‘pollard’ or describing in great detail the appearance of dog shit covered by autumnal leaves, but also with the some excellently timed swearing. Key, in particular, effs and blinds with relish. And only Daniel Kitson could get so much comic mileage with business about a bucket on a string.

The energy does somewhat diminish around the two-thirds mark, but the ending creeps up on you and heads to a darker place than you are expecting, where big questions are asked about the stories we tell ourselves and each other, the things we hide and how we convince ourselves of our own morality in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

 A few extra dates have been added, from February 16 – 22. Try get some tickets here

October 7, 2014, Posted by Richard in Reviews, Theatre & Comedy

Simon Amstell: ‘To Be Free’ comedy review

‘Painfully honest’ has become the cliché when describing Simon Amstell’s stand-up. That unravelling of the self on stage, the spotlight burning, isn’t a new thing in comedy, but Amstell is proving to be the modern master of it.

At the start of ‘Do Nothing’, his first full-length show, the first line (after a sheepish ‘hello’) is: ‘I’m quite lonely, let’s start with that.’ Perhaps an early warning to those who’d come to see him expecting the kind of snide, celebrity piss-taking Amstell was famous for on Popworld and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, it set the scene for the next hour of introspection, naval-gazing and self-exploration. Cut to his new show, ‘To Be Free’, and not a huge amount has changed, other than the fact the show is another gem.

He might have resolved his feelings of romantic isolation now that he’s currently in a relationship, but the inability to live in the moment is still a constant battle.  The only time he can achieve the honesty and lack of filter he craves is when he’s being funny, but that can massively backfire – for instance the joke he made on Radio 1 on the day of Nelson Mandela’s death. Whilst the joke wasn’t the ‘offensive’ storm the media tried to make it, it obviously struck a deeper chord with Amstell. Why must he be so crippled with insecurity one moment yet punished when the filter comes off?

There are some beautifully constructed routines here. This was still a work-in-progress show and it was interesting to see Amstell had the whole show printed out as a script – this is a pruned-within-an-inch-if-its-life monologue, every word carefully chosen. At one point he agonises over a choice of word, in the end leaving the audience to decide for him.

‘To Be Free’ doesn’t quite catch the bitter lows and hilarious highs of his last two shows, but it’s still a brilliant and thought-provoking performance.

A quick word, too, for the venue. The Invisible Dot is the best kept secret on the London comedy scene. Stewart Lee, Tim Key, Josie Long, Liam Williams, Bridget Christie and now Simon Amstell have all done shows in the last couple of months. For the price and intimate space, it’s an absolute treat.

Simon Amstell is on tour now with ‘To Be Free’. Details here: http://www.simonamstell.co.uk/

tobefree

July 29, 2014, Posted by Richard in Reviews, Theatre & Comedy

Josie Long: Work-in-Progress review

I walked past Josie Long in the street the other day. We made eye contact and I thought, ‘That’s Josie Long! . . . And now I’m looking at her. What are you doing? Stop looking at her.’ Hopefully she wasn’t too freaked out, and it was a somewhat fitting moment given that her new Edinburgh show, which I saw in preview at the Invisible Dot, is by far her most personal.

The last couple of years have seen Long in full righteous ire mode, railing against a government she hates, trying to remain proactive in the face of adversity. In her new show, Cara Josephine, the adversity comes in the form of her broken heart. Having fallen for her archetypal man yet again, only to fall into the same traps as before, she finds herself losing faith in love full stop. Her desperation to remain optimistic whilst still in the grips of heartbreak leads to she show’s beautiful, paradoxically optimistic yet pessimistic catchphrase, ‘If you don’t die, something good might happen!’

Long’s realisation that to explore this fully means having to talk about things she never would on stage – sex, family history – leads to some interesting tension. She admits that with each performance she isn’t finding it any easier. As if to combat that fear, Long tackles it with same determination she uses when throwing herself into freezing rivers, by unleashing a story which is so intimate, so personal and so hilarious that it’s worth the ticket price alone (especially so given the best JFK/Oliver Stone reference you’ll ever see).

Amongst the confessional and personal, there is still room for some trademark Josie Long silliness – it’s excellent to see her 1930s Film Noir voice making another appearance, and there was some physical comedy in an imagined encounter with Nigel Farage which nearly took the roof off.  There was also hand-drawn prop, natch, but whereas in the past she has perhaps relied too much on such devices, this felt very much like a neat extra.

In the end, it’s family who Long turns to – her sister and her brilliantly ballsy attitude to love and men, her mum’s thoughtfulness, these are the things she can rely on.

There’s still time for some playful manipulation of the audience’s emotions, so conditioned as we are to expect the perfect end to the narrative. In short, it’s glorious to see Long turn her attention to herself. I’m sure she’ll go back to the political at some stage, but this other side to her comedy is thrilling. It’d be gobsmacking if she wasn’t nominated for the main award at the festival this year…

Josie Long’s show, Cara Josephine, is at The Stand, Edinburgh: Aug 1-10, 12-14, 17-24

Buy tickets here

www.josielong.com
Follow Josie on twitter: @JosieLong

June 5, 2014, Posted by Richard in Reviews, Theatre & Comedy

‘Too Many Women’ comedy night review

It’s the age old debate (apparently): are women funny? It’s obviously an extremely important issue, and one that demands closer inspection. The ‘against’ side looks pretty much foolproof from our point of view. For example, LADS, ok, right – name me a genuinely funny wom–

Tina Fey? Sarah Silverman?

What? Yeah OK… but, they’re American! Name me a genuinely funny BRITISH comedi-

Caroline Aherne? Rebecca Front? Olivia Colman? Jessica Hynes? Julia Davis?

Yeah, yeah, but they’re more, like, comic actresses or whatever. Name me a genuinely funny British STAND-UP comedia-

Josie Long? Bridget Christie? Isy Suttie? Shappi Khorsandi?

Yeah well . . . you can prove anything with facts, can’t you?

As ridiculous as this ‘debate’ clearly is, back in March this year, comedian Jenny Collier was genuinely told there were ‘too many women’ on the bill of a comedy night she was to perform at, so she was dropped. In response, Jenny and the good people at Emerald Street responded with the inaugural ‘Too Many Women’ night at The Old Queen’s Head.

Compered by the superb Jen Brister, whose bafflement at the front row of friends who’d met up for the night on twitter was particularly funny, this was a brilliant night featuring four fantastic comedians (or female comediennes, as FHM described our headliner, just to make it clear…).

First on the bill was Rachel Parris, in the guise of glamorous alter-ego Felice. Parris has garnered some excellent reviews as part of the Jane Austen-themed improv gang, Austentatious, and she can clearly hold her own in solo mode. Felice, a botoxed American superstar with a monstrous ego, went down a treat. Parris expertly captured the mannerisms and tics of the faux-earnest yet arrogant star bellowing out absurdly bland declarations of love before undercutting them with some gloriously self-aggrandising lyrics. The refrain of ‘I’m amazing…’ was a particular highlight.  Parris’s improv skills meant she came into her own when making up lyrics to a couple of songs including ‘Cock Scarf’ (words suggested by the audience), before a climactic warbling topped her excellent set off.

Next up, after compere Brister had coined a brilliantly cutting term for the banker and private equity fund manager in the front row (the second word was ‘corner’ but the first definitely wasn’t ‘crunch’), was Jenny Collier, who really showed the clowns who dropped her what they were missing. This was a great set, with Collier’s misdirection and brilliant mangling of plurals, along with some choice tales of her mum’s muddled conversations, getting some big laughs.

We were annoyed to miss out on penultimate act Aisling Bea at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, so it was great to get a chance to see her last night, as she was another brilliant performer. Delivering her set at breakneck speed (including a brilliant analysis of why she actually speaks so fast), you hardly had time to catch your breath before the next big belly laugh. Amongst the breathless tales of her childhood and professional jockey mother (yep, really), there was some great improvised satirical stuff aimed at the Americans in the front row. In short, she’s ace.

Closing off proceedings was  Sara Pascoe with barnstorming headline set. You really get the impression she agonises over every word (in a good way), and the gags land brilliantly because of it. She’s a supremely confident comedian and had the audience in the palm of her hand as she explored her past relationships and terrifying adolescent obsession with members of Take That. Also, her suggested method of how to end the ‘No More Page 3’ debate may have come from a dream, but it’s a glorious and immediately visual idea and it went down a storm. You’ll have to go and see her to find out what it is…

All in all this was a fantastic showcase of some brilliant talent, and we can only hope those Emerald Street lot get another date in the diary soon…

May 6, 2014, Posted by Richard in Reviews, Theatre & Comedy

Mach Comedy Fest 2014 review

You know, Carlsberg don’t do festivals – and thank God, because it would probably be flat, and you’d only go there because Estrella Fest was sold out and the only other option was LADitude (sponsored by Carling). Luckily, Machynlleth’s festival (or Mach Comedy Fest, now into its fifth year) is well worth the trip.

The beauty of the festival, and I hope this isn’t to be its undoing as it’s getting more and more coverage, is how intimate it all is. You can get from each venue in ten minutes on foot, from the biggest – the Tabernacle (a former chapel with a capacity of around 300) – to Royal House (a tiny medieval cottage). When you’re not watching the comedy,  you can head over to the big tent at Y Plas and slurp your way through their selection of locally brewed Welsh ales. ‘Two pints of Smelly Wizard’s Knee and a half of Badger’s Dilemma, please.’

In the big tent with a pint of Badger's Dilema

In the big tent with a pint of Badger’s Dilemma

If you want to stay slightly outside the village (i.e. you forgot to book somewhere until there was only a few months left to find something oh for God’s sake why must things be so hard), I heartily recommend the Centre For Alternative Technology . ‘Shit and wind, the locals call it,’ our slightly glum taxi driver told us as we weaved up the b-road. Well that was music to this particular vegetarian’s protein-deficient ears, and I was glad I packed my patented muesli knitting needles made from locally sourced bark. The walls of this place are genuinely made from hemp. But, more importantly, the staff are lovely, the rooms are nice, and there are views of the beautiful countryside. A morning ramble into the village was a great way to kick off the day.

Nice, eh?

Nice, eh?

As for the comedy itself, well it was all rather bloody good. We were gutted to miss out on a number of shows that were all on at the same time, but here are our highlights of what we saw:

Bridget Christie showed exactly why she won last year’s Edinburgh Comedy Award with her tremendous show ‘A Bic For Her’. Her withering contempt for sexism, from ridiculous products to ridiculous former racing drivers, is delivered with fantastic energy and is thought-provoking whilst consistently hitting home with beautifully crafted gags.

Sheeps / Liam Williams

This was a superb and original show from a highly talented trio. The conceit is that they (Liam, Jonno and Al) have mistakenly booked themselves to play Wembley stadium, despite only having one sketch. In the hour-show they brilliantly deconstruct this one skit, performing it in a variety of different ways as their characters’ conflicting motives start to appear. Go and see them if you get the chance – Edinburgh will be a must. In the aforementioned Royal House, Liam Williams went solo and treated us to his work-in-progress show. Liam was my highlight of Edinburgh last year, and once polished this will undoubtedly be another glorious hour of existential angst. Painfully honest tends to be a cliched and crass way to describe this kind of confessional comedy, but sitting so close to Williams as he poured his heart out (stopping only for a swig of lager or to break into his hilarious ‘play’ about capitalism), it really did feel like some sort of therapy session. He even mentions Annie Hall for gawd’s sake. Watch this, you’ll see what I mean. He is ace.

Simon Munnery

As a fully paid up member of the comedy nerds’ society, it’s a bit of a crime that I’ve never seen Simon Munnery before. And what a fool I have been. His ‘Fylm School’ is inventive, surreal and very, very funny. Munnery spends the whole show sat in the audience with a projector, creating bizarre little sketches and songs using cardboard cutouts and a clever use of camera angles. It’s slightly hard to explain, so we’ll just tell you to go and the few remaining shows he’s doing.

BONUS HIGHLIGHT!

Watching Josie Long and Tim Key mucking around by a cashpoint and nearly working up the courage to say hello. Next year, dammit.

BONUS LOWLIGHT!

The person who shouted out slightly needlessly at Bridget Christie’s show and the woman who laughed like a seagull singing Slipknot during Simon Munnery.

See you next year, Mach!

www.machcomedyfest.co.uk
twitter.com/machcomedyfest
www.cat.org.uk

April 24, 2014, Posted by Richard in Reviews, Theatre & Comedy

World Book Night: Letters Live review

LETTERS LIVE

A World Book Night event
In association with The Reading Agency
Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall

We have been enamoured for quite some time by Shaun Usher’s superb Letters of Note – first as a website, and then in its quite glorious book form. Add a live event with some of the best actors and writers in the business to the mix and you get a wonderful evening of humour, poignancy and something of a call to arms for the importance of reading.

So it was we headed to London’s snazzy South Bank Centre to celebrate World Book Night in style. Whilst there was hardly a bum note all evening, there were certainly some standout moments. In no particular order…

Matt Berry

As the old cliché goes, I could listen to Matt Berry read from a phone book. There’s something so glorious about that sonorous, booming voice of his that makes everything he says instantly funny. So to have him reading from Matt ‘South Park’ Stone’s po-faced memo to the MPAA was a particular delight.

Clarke Peters

Speaking of fantastic voices, I’d been wondering where I recognised the name Clarke Peters from when I was scanning through the running order before the show started, but as soon as he read the first words from Louis Armstrong’s brilliant letter to a fan, I recognised him as none other than Lester Freamon from The Wire. He captured Satchmo’s voice and the spirit of the letter majestically. Cool Lester Smooth…

Caitlin Moran

Caitlin was her usual brilliant self, and her self-penned letter to her daughter was as brilliant as any other on the night. A particularly wonderful piece of advice was that

life divides into AMAZING ENJOYABLE TIMES and APPALLING EXPERIENCES THAT WILL MAKE FUTURE AMAZING ANECDOTES. However awful, you can get through any experience if you imagine yourself, in the future, telling your friends about it as they scream, with increasing disbelief, ‘NO! NO!’ Even when Jesus was on the cross, I bet He was thinking, ‘When I rise in three days, the disciples aren’t going to believe this when I tell them about it.’

 How ace is that?

James Rhodes

James Rhodes provided a couple of beautiful musical moments as he (hilariously) read letters from Chopin and Schumann and then played pieces by them, without music, from a grand piano. You got the sense that everyone in the room was secretly disgusted at this – how dare someone be so bloody funny and talented and wear such great shoes. The amazing bastard.

Stephen Fry

To be honest, it wasn’t the biggest surprise of the night that the unnamed person reading from Oscar Wilde turned out to be Stephen Fry, but nonetheless he was greeted like royalty, and read from Wilde before returning to recite mark Twain’s deliciously barbed response to a bogus salesman who’d tried to deliver him an elixir of life.

 

Russell Brand

If we were expecting Stephen Fry to be the most high-profile special guest, that was suddenly all changed when a very late Russell Brand stumbled out onto the stage like a slightly bewildered prince who had wandered into a wing of his palace he’d never been in before. As you would expect, he was the most playful of everyone who read during the night, and managed to riff on the idea that the extended ellipsis in Mick Jagger’s  letter to Andy Warhol was in fact a subtle tribute to the latter creating art out of the mundane. The off he went looking all handsome.

Andrew O’Hagan

RB was always going to be a slightly hard act to follow, but Andrew O’Hagan (stepping in for a poorly Philip Pullman), finished off the evening with a wonderful reading from Kurt Vonnegut’s biting riposte to the headtacher who ordered copies of his books to be burnt.

If ever there was a powerful message about the importance of reading and art, then this last letter encapsulated it perfectly. All in all, this was a fantastic event in the name of a brilliant cause – we can’t wait for the next one.

 

Find out more here:

http://readingagency.org.uk/

www.worldbooknight.org

www.lettersofnote.com

April 8, 2014, Posted by Ben Willis in Reviews, Theatre & Comedy

To Kill a Mockingbird review

Rich heads to the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre for this adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic.

There was a moment during tonight’s performance of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre when the sun finally disappeared behind the trees and, as one, the audience reached into their bags for blankets. But despite London’s poor impression of the American Deep South in high summer, this was a performance that brought the sweltering heat and claustrophobia of Harper Lee’s classic alive superbly.

The play opened with actors dotted around the audience, rising to read from tattered copies of the Pulitzer-prize-winning book, before making their way to the stage.  They continued to read paragraphs out throughout the performance as well as taking turns at supporting roles. This is one of the masterstrokes of Christopher Sergel’s adaptation, letting Lee’s majestic prose set the scene and inform the action, negating the need for clunky exposition from the actors.

It’s always a tense moment when a child actor enters the stage – are they going to be too quiet, or worse like something out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? – but these three kids were exceptional, essentially carrying the first half of the performance on their own. Eleanor Worthington-Cox was particularly impressive as Scout, playing the hot-headed youngster with real conviction, and it’s no surprise to learn she won an Oliver award for her role in the smash-hit musical, Matilda.

The second half belonged to Robert Sean Leonard and Richie Campbell as Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson respectively, the courtroom scene in particular keeping the audience enthralled – even a passing 747 or at one stage guttural grunts from a resident of the nearby zoo didn’t break the spell. As the shadows lengthened and the drama unfolded, the pace never dropped, but the actors never felt the need to ‘go big’, letting the sparkling dialogue do the work for them.

When the final lines of Lee’s story were spoken: ‘[Atticus] would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning’, you got the sense that the audience would have stayed with him until the sun came up again, given the chance.

Runs until June 16

April 8, 2014, Posted by Ben Willis in Reviews, Theatre & Comedy

Henry V review

My friend bought our tickets for Michael Grandage’s excellent production of Henry V two years ago, bizarrely on one of those ‘last late minute’ websites.

I found the email I’d sent her saying ‘I wonder what we’ll be up to in two years’ time!’ My hope was that I’d be eating a meal-in-a-pill whilst hoverboarding to work, not sitting in clothes made mainly of old cornflakes and dust hoping if I burped loud enough I could change channel without having to reach for the remote.

That’s not a scenario Jude Law ever finds himself in, I suspect. As Henry, he is superb – brimming with kingly charisma as he inspires his men, though with overtures of uncomfortable bloodlust when commanding them to murder the French prisoners.

A minority have criticised Law for seeming lacklustre or even unconvincing when Henry’s persuading his troops to fight on, but I’d definitely stick with the majority who recognise this as a nuance of Law’s performance, that crucially the King is really trying to convince himself.

In the last act we see a different side to Henry. Law is charmingly besotted as he tries to chat up Jessie Buckley’s excellent Princess Katharine, getting a big laugh when he petulantly asks: ‘D’ya like me Kate?’

He’s so amiably matey in this scene, he comes across as the sort of bloke’s bloke who, when buying a round, gets some crisps and opens the bag up on the table for everyone without mentioning the additional cost incurred.

As for the rest: the supporting cast are strong, the standout being Ron Cook as Pistol, who has a bit of a Mick Jagger swagger about him. Having Ashley Zhangazha double as the Chorus and the Boy is an interesting technique, and he is involved as the latter in the most shocking moment of the play.

It only remains for us to say you must go and see this one if you can. Oh, and also make the apparently obligatory reference to Jude’s receding hairline, which is important for some reason.

Booking runs up to 12/02/2014, Noel Coward Theatre

https://www.menwhostareatbooks.co.uk/wp-content/themes/press