The League of Gentlemen Live Again! at the O2 Arena review ****

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The League of Gentlemen Live Again!

O2 Arena London, 23rd September 2018

The Tourist really dislikes the O2 Arena. Awful sound, brutal lighting, terrible sightlines, cavernous, uncomfortable seats, no water, sh*te loos. Pretty much pointless choosing to “see” anything there. Still sometimes, as here, you have no choice.

And this, to repeat,was the League of Gentlemen, in the flesh. Mandatory. So off we trooped the SO, BD, LD and a couple more “local people” (really). Thanks to a cavalier approach to timing from yours truly, reasoning nothing ever starts on time there (this did), and a bloody ridiculous trek all the way round the Arena to get back to where started from for our allotted entrance, we snuck in late.

Still pretty easy to get into the swing of things with Go Johnny Go Go Go first up. The first half sees our three heroes in evening dress running through some classic sketches with blackouts whilst the furniture was re-arrranged. The second half is more ambitious with set and costume changes, with assistance from pre-recorded video to brings things together, (and get characters on and off stage). Now I am going to assume that you are either a fan or not. Either way there would be no point in my rabbiting on about the detail of the evening’s proceedings. Some sketches and sequences worked better than others, the same way that some characters make some of us laugh more than some others. For me the highlights were Legz Akimbo, (with Reece Shearsmith at his bitter best in Olly Plimsolls), Pop (especially when Steve Pemberton goaded Shearsmith into corpsing), Mordant Mick and Herr Lipp. Especially Herr Lipp with a bit of audience participation. For BD it was probably Edward and Tubbs, complete with musical theatre number, for LD it was Pauline and for the SO, as it always has been, it was Pam Doove.

That is the way it has always been. I get that some find LoG dark and disturbing. Not me. Though the third series does get a little weird I accept. The SO kept BD, and then LD, away from Royston Vasey for many years until they were “ready” and MS said he found it a bit scary at first. Just as well then I wasn’t in charge of their viewing as to me it is just funny.

What is interesting in seeing the LoG now, in this live show and in the recent three new episodes, after some sixteen years since the original three TV series’ came out, is not how grotesque it is, too much exposure to think that, but actually how direct it is. Not the often unreconstructed nature of the comedy, that was part of the point, but actually how rooted in comedy history so many of the set ups are. Which is what makes it so funny. An absurdly camp German trotting out a string of preposterous double entendres is not radical in any way. It is though one of the funniest things I have ever seen. The dark heart of comedy I suppose.

Now we know that Messrs Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith, and, in his own way the silent partner, Jeremy Dyson, have all gone on to copious writing and performing success, on big and small screen and on stage, and in other guises. They are all brilliant in their very different ways. Which means that this is not some desperate revival show done for cash. And they were never going to dash off any old tosh. Way too clever for that. They all look like they are having a ball in the show but I have to say that Steve Pemberton, who let’s face it always nabbed the best of the grotesques, had the most presence.

Special stuff.

 

 

The End of the Pier at the Park Theatre review ****

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The End of the Pier

Park Theatre 200, 2nd August 2018

Comic gold is not universal. We all have a different take on what is funny. The casting of Les Dennis in Extras (S1 E4) as a washed up, needy TV star in a pantomime, whose young fiancee is copping off with a stagehand, was a stroke of genius by its creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Specifically the scene where he is literally baring his all to Gervais in the changing room is as funny as funny gets. As it turns out this was a turning point in Les’s life and career lifting him out of a dark period after a marital break-up (visible on the execrable Big Brother apparently). Ironic too that Messrs Gervais and Merchant’s own comedy oeuvres have been largely downhill since then.

Anyway it means that Jolly Les is surely the go to casting choice if you are writing and producing a play about a washed up comedian whose career comes crashing down after making a racist joke. Which is exactly what writer and director Danny Robins and Hannah Price did with The End of the Pier. More than enough to reel me and the SO in to seeing it.

The joy is that this is actually a pretty good play. Funny, insightful, well structured and with some strong performances and not just from Les. His character Bobby was part of an, unsurprisingly, Northern double act, Chalk and Cheese. From working men’s clubs through to Saturday Night TV stardom they had it all into the 1980s. Eddie Cheese, now dead, was an unrepentant racist bully but it is Bobby who ends up telling the (unheard) joke, perhaps against his better nature, which catapults their careers, just when the audience, thanks to alternative comedy, is moving on. The twist is that Bobby’s son, Michael, played by Blake Harrison, (you know Neil from The Inbetweeners), is also now a household name “observational” comedian, with a partner Jenna, (the very talented Tala Gouviea), who is a TV comedy commissioning executive and fully paid up member of the LME.

Now as I write this I can see that the set-up does all sound a bit predictable. But the way in which Mr Robins goes on to develop the set-up is anything but. The politics of comedy, (and race and class), are smartly pulled to pieces, the relationship between father and son is similarly dissected and there is a brilliantly funny ending courtesy of Nitin Ganatra, who plays Mohammed, a schoolmate of Michael who comes back to haunt him. OK so there are a couple of clunky McGuffins to facilitate some plot switchbacks, and Michael’s character turns a little too adroitly on a attitudinal sixpence towards the end, but no matter, as once it gets going this is thoroughly entertaining stuff. Danny Robins is not the only TV/radio sitcom writer to be commissioned for the Park stage but on the strength of this I bet he gets another crack at a full length play. He has an ear for dialogue and could certainly succeed with subtler fare. Mind you I have to admit that some of the funniest lines in the play are Bobby’s cringey old-skool one-liners.

Hannah Price, (who I think worked with no less than John Malkovich on his The Good Canary at the Kingston Rose last year), directs with vigour and does a pretty guide job of patching over the contrivances and James Turner’s set, which shifts from Bobby’s Blackpool flat to backstage at the studio where Michael’s show is filmed, has a real flair for detail. As an aside the designers for productions at the Park seem to me to always be very well served by those who put their sets together so a big shout out to the chippies and the rest of the team. In our performance there was a problem with the sound but the team soldiered on regardless and came up with a couple of belts and braces solutions when it mattered.

There are better plays which address the nature of comedy, Trevor Griffith’s masterful Comedians and Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny for example, but this is a very entertaining, if occasionally overly earnest, addition.

 

 

The Flight of the Conchords at the O2 Arena review ****

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The Flight of the Conchords

The O2 Arena, 20th June 2018

Father and Son
Deana and Ian
The Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room)
Inner City Pressure
Bowie
Chips and Dips
Albi The Racist Dragon
1353 (Woo a Lady)
The Ballad of Stana
Bus Driver’s Song
Mutha’uckas / Hurt Feelings
The Seagull
Back on the Road
Carol Brown
Shady Rachel
Robots

Dairy products, meat, wood, locations for hobbits and rugby teams. New Zealand’s most valuable exports? Nope. The Flight of the Conchords, surely. Only joking. New Zealand has an extraordinarily rich cultural life from what I can see and landscapes of immense beauty, Sadly I suspect I will never get there.

So for the moment I will have to be content with Bret and Jermaine. Originally we intended to go en famille. BD’s loss, (poncing around at some uni bash), was MS’s gain. LD might not quite have the compulsion of the rest of us but has had enough exposure to the classic tunes to mean that it was pretty easy for her to get into the swing of the evening.

Over the last few years I have been constantly surprised by how few of my friends and acquaintances have caught the Conchords bug and, indeed, how many have never even heard of the boys. Clearly though filling this many large venues, (and the pre-tour at the Soho Theatre), even after the accident to Bret’s hand, suggests there are plenty of fans 10 years after the original HBO show and 15 years after storming the Edinburgh Fringe.

No need to preach to the converted then. You were probably there. On the night we went the boys took their time coming on, and by virtue of my miserliness, and a big of bad luck on the open for the original dates, we were about as far away as it was possible to be in the O2 which, as everyone knows, is A VERY BAD IDEA. But I figured we’d be so happy anyway that it wouldn’t matter too much if we relied on the screen to see the boys.

Of course they were brilliant (including Nigel on cello aka the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra). Of course the banter, less knowing and much looser than of old, was hilarious. Of course the classics were a joy even when they ballsed them up (deliberately?). But the best thing about the whole evening were the new songs. Especially the meta The Seagull, piano ballad Father and Son, country rock The Ballad of Stana and the hilarious madrigal 1353 (Woo A Lady). The reviews let us know what was coming but a song that might have been written especially for MS was the highlight of our evening.

There is not much point going on. If you don’t know “the fourth most popular folk parody duo in New Zealand”, or if you’ve had a look and don’t get it, then no matter. Your loss. For some of us this is still about as funny as funny gets.

 

Much Ado About Nothing at the Rose Kingston review ****

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Much Ado About Nothing

Rose Theatre Kingston, 20th April 2018

Come on fellow residents of the Royal Borough of Kingston and London Borough of Richmond – both upon Thames. Get your collective arses over to the Rose Theatre to see this new version of Much Ado About Nothing, celebrating the 10th anniversary of your local theatre. There are plenty of tickets left for the last handful of performances. It is not perfect but when it is funny, it is very funny, the setting is intriguing, there are a handful of strong performances, including the star turn Mel Giedroyc, and, in John Hopkins’s Benedick, there is Shakespearean comic acting to rival the very best.

Now I will admit that the main draw for BD, LD, myself, and latterly MS, was Ms Giedroyc herself. Obviously she is a national treasure and we have collectively seen her memorably translate her inimitable style, arch covers it, to the reading of Agatha Christie. Play, proximity and support for the local theatre was enough justification for me, but LD especially needed the hook of her off the telly. LD is probably a bellwether teen, suspicious of Shakespeare, unless forced to consume at school, and then normally pleasantly surprised when Dad mugs her into coming along, usually through vague subterfuge. And she thoroughly enjoyed this. It doesn’t mean a trip to an uncut Lear is just round the corner. Just saying that if it is good enough to entertain her it is good enough to entertain anyone who might be dubious about the Bard.

Moreover, this production, jointly staged with Granville and Parnham and Antic Face, rattles through the action so that we are all done and dusted in under 150 minutes inc. interval. That’s including a several minute intro as we are, just so we know, introduced to the resort hotel in a set shrewdly realised by Naomi Dawson. This is modern day Sicily and Leonato’s estate is now a luxury spa to which Peter Guinness’s suitably intimidating mafioso Don Pedro and crew have retired for a bit of rest, relaxation and intimidation. Suffice to say it looked nothing like the bucolic MAAN in the drawing above.

Director Simon Dormandy’s ideas do, fitfully, generate some insight, notably in the way that Kate Lamb’s Hero and Calam Lynch’s Claudio are so precipitously thrust together, in the fancy dress party which permits the romantic plotting, in the wedding scenes and, especially, in Hero’s fake funeral. Here the juxtaposition of modern sophistication with older, deeper, paternalistic traditions is most striking. We love Sicily, (well I do especially), but Sicilians are a wary bunch, unsurprising given colonisations by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Muslims, Vikings, Normans, Germans, French, Spanish, Italians, Mafia and Tourists. Mind you that is what is makes it endlessly fascinating to the outsider.

On the other hand there are times when the hotel set is a limitation, most notably for the Watch, though frankly that never works, even with Stewart Wright doing his very best as Dogberry. And, let’s face it, most people see MAAN for the comedy, specifically Beatrice and Benedick sparring. Mel, as customer services manager for the hotel and Mr Hopkins, as an unlikely consigliere to Don Pedro, deliver. Ms Giedroyc, is funny, we know that, and exactly the right sort of funny, and doesn’t hold back from mugging to the audience. When she needs to show Beatrice’s independence, and specifically her revulsion at the patriarchal conceits around her, she also shows she can seriously act. John Hopkins however is a cut above, the physical humour matches his brilliant delivery of the text. Their early disdain for each other is done snappily enough, with some evidence of their back story, but it is when they get serious about each other that they hit the heights. Mel’s immediate retort of “kill him” when asked by Mr Hopkins what Benedick could do for Beatrice to right the wrong Claudio has inflicted on Hero, got the laugh, but the audience was palpably nervous. It is their respective eavesdropping scenes which still the show: pure farce, but why not if it makes us happy.

We were taken with young Calum Lynch as Claudio on his professional debut, especially LD, and especially when his top came off. There was a harsh streak in him, where required, to balance the skittish wooing. Kate Lamb presented an initially diffident Hero but bristled wth anger as her reputation was impugned. Peter Bray, rather disconcertingly played Don John as a somewhat dim East London thug; in contrast his Clerk was more Home Counties solicitor. David Rintoul as Leonato, now hotel manager, was alternately brutal and oleaginous. Fine support elsewhere includes Nicholas Prassad as Borachio and Victoria Hamnett as Margaret conjuring up a saucy scene involving Hero’s wedding dress that provides a not unreasonable explanation for the mistaken identity window scene which leads to Hero’s “disgrace”.

There have been, and will be, sharper, richer versions of MAAN, Christopher Luscombe’s recent RSC production for example, but if you want some straightforward easy on the ear and eye Shakespeare comedy, Kingston, for the rest of this week, is the place to be.

 

 

 

Murder She Didn’t Write at the Leicester Square Theatre review ****

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Murder She Didn’t Write, Degrees of Error, Something for the Weekend

Leicester Square Theatre, 25th March 2018

Flushed with success from our previous outing to the LST for a bit of class improv, BD, LD and the Tourist slope off to see Degrees of Error and Something for the Weekend and their commended show Murder She Didn’t Write. If this was as anything like as good as Austentatious we were in with a treat (Austentatious at Leicester Square Theatre review ****).

Well, I can report, it is,  and we were. You wouldn’t think to look at kindly Agatha Christie that she could have such a devious and sly mind. For how else to explain how she re-wrote the rules on whodunnit plotting. Which delights in exposing human cruelty. Take a look at Sarah Phelps’s riveting adaptations courtesy of the BBC, Ordeal By Innocence on now, Witness For The Prosecution and And Then There Were None, if you want to see how Christie should be done.

Agatha Christie is, by some margin, the most famous product of Torbay. If the Tourist, who is similarly scion-ed, is to catch her up he needs to come up with something sharpish. This blog, with its still pitiful double digit readership, is not it. Her holiday home, Greenway House, is well worth a visit, and happens to be just down the road from the Tourist’s alma mater.

The classic Christie tropes, the grand locations, the secretive characters, the class divisions, the disguises and assumed identities, the clues and red herrings, the inspired investigator, the big reveal, are as amenable to spoofing as they are to cracking drama. So it’s not really a great surprise to see an improvisation troupe alight on Agatha as a source for its entertainment.

That is not in any way to decry the skill which Degrees of Error bring this to the stage. DoE are an improv theatre company based in Bristol and have been taking Murder She Didn’t Write to Edinburgh and on tour since 2013. So they know what they are about. Even so, as with Austentatious, improv comedy theatre on this scale, (we got around 90 minutes of action for our 15 quid each), is a tough gig. So they wisely help themselves in a number of ways. One of the company, (I think Tom Bridges but with no cribsheet I can’t be sure so forgive me if I am mistaken), plays the detective, who guides us through the “plot” with occasional interjections to give his “acting” colleagues time to pause for breath and to suggest scenarios which might add to the gag quotient. He also recruits a member of the audience to be his sidekick, Jerkins, who picks out both victim and murderer. Our cast is “colour-coded” Cluedo fashion to assist in the process. Jerkins also ultimately decides on the location and event for the murder mystery based on audience suggestions vetted by the Inspector.

All this buys a bit of time for cast to prepare and to fit the classic Christie tropes to their characters. Even so, early on, there are a few awkward diversions and cross-talking, but after the first 20 minutes or so the direction is set and the cast can settle into the flow. Then they start making it look easy. After the interval you would barely know it was improvised.

It is very, very funny. Our setting, a wine tasting, and location, a wine-glass factory worked a treat. I don’t know how much they might have squeezed in from previous improvs but nothing ever feels forced or less than spontaneous. Watching the comic ideas coalesce is delightful and seeing the cast grinning when they hit the comedy jackpot makes the whole thing even funnier. That is the shared joy of improv.

I think the cast was Peter Baker, Lizzy Skrzypiec, Tessa Gaukroger, Caitlin Campbell, Rachel Lane and John Lomas, but I can’t be sure as I say. No point singling out anyone in particular, the whole ensemble was fabulous.

If this even slightly piques your interest I strongly encourage you to take the plunge. The London gigs at the LST are at 4pm on a Sunday. What else are you going to be doing then FFS? This is one of those outings where you absolutely can take your mates along without worrying they won’t enjoy it and you will look like a tit, and there is, for a couple of hours at least, no question of FOMO or phone-withdrawal kicking in.

http://www.degreesoferror.com/tour/

 

 

Milton Jones “Is Out There” at Shanklin Theatre review ****

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Milton Jones: Is Out There

Shanklin Theatre, 16th February 2018

The sunniest place in Britain is Shanklin. Fact. Don’t be deceived by imposters on the South Coast claiming this accolade. It is Shanklin. And, as any fool knows, the Isle of Wight is a paradise on Earth. Beautiful scenery, fascinating history, plenty to do, loads of places to eat, proper British beaches.

Now I admit Shanklin itself is not at the cutting edge of holiday fashion. But if you like crazy golf, amusement arcades, ice-cream, fish and chips, sand between your toes and brutalist lift structures, (to take you down to the front), then this is the place for you. And not too far away is, IMHO, the best eatery in Britain, in the form of the Taverners in Godshill.

Shanklin Theatre, like the town itself, and the IoW, is a bit rough around the edges. That’s why I like it. It’s a proper old style theatre which does a nice line in am-dram, tribute bands and, especially, comedy, and serves the town well.

So, as this is the Tourist’s home away from home, this is where he the SO and LD chose to see the unique wordsmith that is Milton Jones. The regular reader of this blog may be aware that the Tourist’s tolerance for stand-up comedians is low. Milton Jones though is on the approved list along with Lee, Christie, Kitson and Vine. Most of then are just way too lazy in their choice of material. This is not a criticism that can be levelled at Mr Jones. The madcap exterior belies a fierce intelligence. In this latest show he adopts the device of an off-stage publicist putting him up for all suits of unsuitable comedy job opportunities. That is the, admittedly, tenuous thread that holds the show together.

Oh that and Brexit. Now for those that know Milton Jones from previous shows or from his turns on the telly might be surprised that he incorporates the issue de jour. However there is, and has always been, a layer of absurdist satire beneath the wacky wordplay and he puts it to good use here. Which, in the context of the IoW, a firm Leave bastion, created a little bit of enjoyable frisson in the air. This was helped by some adept put-downs from support act Chris Stokes aimed at a bone-headed heckler. Livened his act up immensely and even gave Milton Jones something to work with.

Now the real pleasure in an MJ show, in addition to his brilliant ideas, is hearing the audience react. I get the majority of the jokes, but there are a few that get away, and some that require a little time to sink in. Multiply these reaction times by a few hundred, combined with the pace of MJ’s delivery, and it means that, with a few pauses, the laughter is pretty much continuous. I can’t pretend that many of the lines stick, blame the Tourist’s faltering memory, but no matter, when the pleasure is in just being there.

There are still a couple of months left on the tour. If he is coming anywhere near you just go. You will be hard pressed to find a funnier 90 minutes or so of entertainment anywhere else.

The Open House at the Print Room Coronet review ***

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The Open House

The Print Room Coronet, 27th January 2018

Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Sam Shepherd, Lillian Hellman. All succeeded at writing a Great American Play, or in some cases Plays, about dysfunctional families. In an entirely naturalistic way. It is the meat and drink of American drama.

I am no expert but I suspect there have also been multiple attempts to subvert this staple. That is what writer, Will Eno, is about here. Open House is another collaboration with Bath Theatre Royal’s Ustinov Studio, which has proved fruitful to date. I was reeled in by the Bath reviews, by the concept, but most of all by Greg Hicks, who is a marvellous actor IMHO. His Richard II at the Arcola was one of my favourite turns of last year. And, all things considered, I am glad I went along, though I have to confess this is a play that delights rather more in its central idea and its structure, than in its characters.

Father, (yes it is one of those trendy no-name jobs), played by the aforesaid Mr Hicks, is a cantankerous, misanthropic, sarcastic bully. Confined to a wheelchair post a stroke he pokes, probes, belittles and demeans the family that has gathered to celebrate a wedding anniversary. Long suffering wife and Mother Teresa Banham (last seen by me in the rash Dessert at the Southwark Playhouse) tries hard to blunt his barbs and smooth things over but her heart isn’t in it anymore. Son (Ralph Davies) and Daughter (Lindsey Campbell) make nervous family small talk but are constantly shot down by their irascible Dad. Finally Uncle (Crispin Letts) seems lost in his own world, still grieving from the loss of his wife. So far so miserable. It is on occasion very funny, in that cringey, lemon-sucking way, Mr Eno has an ear for the rhythms of this painful family gathering and the cast lap it up. Tom Piper’s set along with Madeleine Girling’s costumes, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Andrea J Cox’s sound all contrive to create an atmosphere of utter blandness. Colour is absent.

Food is needed and Daughter volunteers to head out to the deli. And one by one, for various reasons the family leaves. And one by one the family returns, but in a different guise. Daughter is now a realtor who is set to sell the house. Son is a handyman come to fix a couple of things, Uncle a prospective buyer, Wife his partner. Father is last to leave and is mystified by what is going on, (despite prompting the shift by revealing he wanted to sell up), until he returns as the buyer’s friend and lawyer. And, with all this coming and going, colour and light seep in. The conversations more from pained recrimination to upbeat geniality, focussed on the here and now and the future, not the past. In short from pessimism to optimism. It is a gratifying watch, replete with clever touches to support the inversion, but it doesn’t seem to say much beyond the central conceit and doesn’t really interrogate the characters.

Mr Eno is apparently a one for formal innovation and that is no bad thing. But he also seems to have the comic touch and in some ways the satire on family life here may ironically have been more acute if this had been structured in a more straightforward way. Still, it intrigued and made me laugh, and Michael Boyd’s direction, is, as you would expect, entirely sympathetic to the project.