Monday, December 27, 2010

Mr Tumble is a real Beauty - review of The Hexagon 2010 pantomime, starring Justin Fletcher

Sleeping Beauty at The Hexagon, Reading until Sunday, January 2

THE HEXAGON has landed the pick of the celeb crop for its pantomime this year in the form of TV’s Mr Tumble himself, Justin Fletcher, in only his second live panto. Even George, now aged eight and long a graduate of CBeebies, was impressed enough to earmark this panto as the one he wanted to see.

In a production created by the team behind hit CBeebies show The Tweenies (also starring Fletcher as the orange-skinned Jake), Fletcher lit up the stage whenever he appeared as ebullient joker and inventor Josh the Jester, with a great sense of slapstick and comic timing far beyond that normally demonstrated after a panto’s normal fortnight of rehearsal. 

But although clearly the real star, Fletcher (the son of Hungerford composer Guy Fletcher) was not the only strong point of this year’s Hexagon pantomime. Proudly proclaiming Reading’s long history of panto in the programme - the town’s first was Robinson Crusoe, in the Friar Street Theatre in 1789 - Sleeping Beauty featured lush sets, fabulous costumes, a lively dark light scene, and an impressively fearsome if underused dragon.

Also strong was the supporting cast, including the legendary Jane Tucker from Rainbow - my own childhood hero - timeless as Azuriel, the good fairy, and well worthy of a mention, as she said to me after the show “the fairy never gets mentioned in reviews”. Then there was Leah Bracknell (formerly Emmerdale’s Zoe Tate), unrecognisable in a purple fright wig as the evil Carabosse, and Jolyon Dixon, an excellent sidekick to Fletcher as the panto’s dame, Nanny Nora.

Imagine Theatre did away with a lot of the current chart hits (although there was a ‘70s disco scene) and reference to current television shows that often pepper modern pantomimes but may go over the heads of the younger children, concentrating on the slapstick comedy, song, dance and audience participation that appeals to all ages. That’s not to say that this is a production aimed at pre-schoolers - it was great fun for all present, secretly even a too-cool eight-year-old who refused to join in any of the clapping. 

The only pity is that as The Corn Exchange in Newbury is also presenting Sleeping Beauty, it’ll take a hardened panto fan to make it to both productions this year. But for many wanting to take their children to their first Christmas show, the popular draw of the delightful Fletcher will be hard to resist, and they have every right to be extremely satisfied with their choice.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on December 16, 2010

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A real treasure - review of Treasure Island at The Watermill

Treasure Island at The Watermill, Bagnor, until January 2

GRAB your cutlasses and don your eye-patches - although you may want to lift them up during the performance as you won’t want to miss a thing - The Watermill’s Christmas show is a swashbucklng adventure brimming with thrills, spills, daring-do and festive sparkle.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th century children’s story has been cleverly tweaked for the 21st century by playwright Toby Hulse to make sure the production appeals to girls as well as boys, and also to ensure that the bloodthirsty elements of the tale can remain without making it too gory for the youngest of pirates.

And so, the story began in the bedroom of Emily, a modern-day girl who dreamt of growing up to be a pirate rather than a businesswoman. As Emily conjured up a motley crew of her own, the bedroom curtains swept back to reveal an “ooh”-inspiring set, that made the most of The Watermill’s natural design to double up as the Admiral Benbow inn, the schooner Hispaniola, and the island inself.

In turn, Emily’s musical pirates took on the roles of various Treasure Island characters, with Emily herself becoming young Jim Hawkins, the innkeeper’s son who runs away to sea to find the pirate treasure marked on a mysterious map. This device allowed the cast of six to constantly break the fourth wall, with knowing remarks to the audience, “I’m not really dead” being a regular call, dissolving any darkness in the tale with a cheer as the pirate bounced back up, dusted himself down and bounded off to take on the next crucial role in the tale.

A hefty injection of panto-style fun also worked well as the pirates goofed around with the props, asked the audience to suspend disbelief regarding a clearly two-legged Long John Silver and invited all to help in the ambush of the mutineers by bombarding the stage with foam rocks. The audience, of course, obliged with much gusto.

Despite the laughs to be had, Emily (Emily Butterfield) was left questioning whether a pirate’s life was truly for her when a jolly hunt for treasure revealed a raft of double crossing and left such mayhem in its wake. But with a yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, she was persuaded that the pirate life of her imagination was worth at least one final carouse.

As for the audience, many of whom had dressed for the occasion - well, there was no need to down the grog before setting sail on this thrilling and funny adventure, that brought the classic book to life with just the right mix of respect and modern insight. The Watermill has created a Christmas production to be treasured.

Catriona Reeves and Miya Akeda-Morris, aged nine

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bittersweet - Marc Almond review

Marc Almond at The Anvil, Basingstoke on Friday, November 12

SINGER Marc Almond has always been something of a chameleon so it could have been a bit of a gamble to see if he was going to provide a big crowd with the songs they knew. However, he is currently celebrating his 30 years in the business with a tour subtitled ‘My Best Bits’, so on this occasion it was a safe bet that the best-loved releases were going to feature strongly.

Almond’s ‘Best Bits’ were described as “hits and A-sides”, possibly a tongue-in-cheek nod to the fact that after his band Soft Cell’s flurry of Top Five singles in the early 80s, his solo releases have often missed the charts; his duet with Gene Pitney, Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart, being the biggest exception when it hit the top spot in 1989.

However, Almond’s three-decade career gave him plenty of well known electro-pop classics, torch songs and leftfield covers to pull out of the bag with a magnificent flourish. Backed by a four-piece band he never failed to entertain, putting his all into the songs he must have sung so many times before, and donning a wonderfully showy gold lame jacket for part of his performance.

There is a faint nasal quality to Almond’s voice which probably prevents him from being considered one of the truly great singers, but this is overridden by a passion which breathes heart and soul into every song. This is made all the more evident when the music doesn’t so easily lend itself to impassioned vocals, such as the strident hi-NRG beat of 1995’s Brilliant Creatures or Soft Cell’s cold, stripped down synthpop version of Tainted Love.

What was a pleasant surprise was that for such a flamboyant performer Almond was not aloof or precious; happy to chat, he explained that a plaster on his finger was the result of a peck by his parakeet. Although his biggest hits put in their deserved showstopping appearances - Soft Cell’s Torch and What, and 90s solo releases Jacky and The Days of Pearly Spencer - he also had some treats for the real fans, such as less-remembered Soft Cell single Where The Heart is, and a couple of quite amiable songs off recent album Variete.

Early Soft Cell hit Say Hello, Wave Goodbye gave the show the perfect encore, eliciting a pretty impressive rendition of an entire chorus by the audience alone, along with plenty of jocular waving at the stage. However, the real goosebump moment was produced by Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart. Gene Pitney may have passed away in 2006 - in fact, one of his final concerts was at The Anvil, just days before his death - but however much Almond may miss his former collaborator, his powerful solo rendition of the song lacked nothing for being performed alone.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, November 18, 2010

Friday, November 19, 2010

Down on the farm - New Perspective Theatre Company, Farm Boy review

Farm Boy, at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on Saturday, November 6

BASED on the Michael Morpurgo book written as a sequel of sorts to epic trenches tale War Horse, itself a hit on the London stage and with a Steven Spielberg film in production, Farm Boy was always going to be a quieter affair, but as it turns out, none the less powerful in the telling.

Every war hero deserves a happy retirement, and Farm Boy tells the story of how Joey, the titular horse of the first book, was finally released from his farming duties along with his mother, Zoey, after a thrilling ploughing match which set him against the newfangled tractor from a neighbouring Devon farm.

The play itself was set in the modern day, with the story of Joey and his owner Alfred - known as “the Corporal” since his return from the Great War - being told by his now-elderly son to his own grandson, a city boy inspired by farming life and his grandpa’s tales to take over the running of the family farm, and lovingly restore the vintage Fordson tractor which Joey and the Corporal had competed many decades before.

New Perspectives Theatre Company’s production was a two-hander between Grandpa (John Walters), a sometimes grumpy farmer with a fondness for whodunits, and the adult Grandson (Matt Powell), who could still relive the exuberant joy and excitement he had felt when visiting the farm as a child. Grandpa and Grandson took on the personas of their forefathers to tell the story of the ploughing match with a clarity which avoided confusion, even when Grandson was playing Grandpa as a boy, and Grandpa became his own father, struggling with a gammy leg from a war wound as he ploughed “straight and true” behind his two beloved horses.

The stark stage was furnished with just a life-size replica of the 1920s Fordson tractor which the Corporal first feared, and then built a relationship with when it fell into his ownership. The horse-drawn  plough may have been represented by a chair, but its full weight was clear to see as first father then seven-year-old son steered it in an apparently futile attempt to create as many furrows as the tractor on a cold November day.

The timelessness of farm life was contrasted with the modern world as Grandson, an engineering graduate, not only took over the farm but taught Grandpa to read and write  - he had never learnt as a child, having missed so much schooling to help on the family farm. Also present was a down-to-earth attitude towards death, as Grandpa wished that he could go while shutting the chicken coop for the night as his father had done.

There may have been no guns or tanks, although the War Horse tale was touched upon as a beloved family legend, but the tale of Joey and the tractor was just as gripping as any war story. The play, adapted from the book by Daniel Buckroyd was a tribute to the magnificent writing of Michael Morpurgo, and the author’s words were allowed to shine throughout.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, November 14, 2010

Dark side of the loon - Alun Cochrane review

Alun Cochrane at New Greenham Arts on Friday, November 5

COMEDIAN Alun Cochrane’s usual style is very much observational - a previous show of his was entitled Things That Have Happened To Me In Life, Or In Cafes “because that pretty much covers everything”.  But this year, he set himself a challenge: after receiving the tired old heckle “tell us a joke”, he decided to write some.

As it turns out, Cochrane is no Tim Vine, and his “joke jokes” are pretty groan-inducing. But he is entirely aware of this, and so the one-liners, selected in random order from a tub, played no great part in the performance, and merely supported his argument that no carefully-crafted joke is as funny as real life. The show being called Jokes. Life. And Jokes About Life., Cochrane contrasted these inconsequential nuggets with some fairly dark insights into his own life, testing his theory that humour can be found everywhere, even when serious illness invades a family.

Despite the “jokes” not really being the important part of the show, Cochrane probably shouldn’t have bothered offering to write some based on audience ideas during the interval, as he failed to deliver on this. He also seemed unaware of the relevance of the “cruise missile” suggestion thrown to him at this point, which was a pity, as Greenham Common’s history has provided a rich vein of material for many previous visitors to the arts centre.

But no matter, Cochrane’s relaxed yet riveting delivery and shadowed content is not about facts or showy flourishes of improvisational skill. It’s about finding the small pleasures and joys on the gloomiest of days, such as thinking how attractive a package he and his cute toddler son would present if he were to be widowed. Rather too dark you may think, but his wife, who is actually quite ill, has seen the show, and apparently approves.

So yes, Cochrane should ditch the jokes and stick to the life stuff, but he knows that, and it was fun to play along, deciding if each joke had any potential. As he hits more bumps along life’s rickety path, he seems able to find more to laugh at, and it’s rather touching that he’s happy to invite audiences along for the ride.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News, Thursday, November 11, 2010

All hands on Dexter - Felix Dexter review

Felix Dexter at  New Greenham Arts on Thursday, November 4

THE good people of West Berkshire must be busy saving for Christmas, as comedy character actor Felix Dexter was the second performer in a couple of weeks, after John Hegley, to see his show downgraded from The Corn Exchange auditorium to a smaller space owing to disappointing ticket sales.

However, apart from the obvious financial benefits to the performer of filling a bigger venue, Dexter’s show, like Hegley’s, appeared to benefit from the intimate atmosphere. I’m not a fan of the current vogue for arena comedy (although that’s partly because those venues are outside the Newbury Weekly News’ jurisdiction and I’d have to buy a ticket), and many comedians come across better in a smaller room, as long as there’s enough audience members present to allow for laughter without awkwardness.

Dexter’s show, Multiple Personalities In Order, saw him perform as three characters, charming Nigerian Julius Olufemwe, posturing playa Early D and refined architect Aubrey Dubuisson. Each character’s persona explored issues of ethnicity such as the suspicion of Dubuisson’s Cotswold neighbours towards his “high melanin content”, and his apparent acceptance of this as being the way of the world.

A former lawyer, Dexter has won awards for his acting, and was seen on television earlier this year playing several of the central characters in Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse’s spoof travelogue Bellamy’s People on BBC2. It was fascinating to see him physically transform into the characters as he slipped on Early D’s oversized padded jacket or Dubuisson’s elegant gilet. Unlike many similar stage performers, Dexter interacted heavily with the audience while in character, demonstrating a confidence in his well-defined personas, and in audience member’s willingness to play along with some potentially embarrassing scenarios.

However, it was his mid-change monologues that invited the most relaxed laughter, as he told the story of a recent performance in a high-security prison. Maybe this was because the audience felt more comfortable with Dexter as himself rather than as his sometimes unpredictable characters. He has previously performed “straight” stand-up shows to a mixed reception, but I would be happy to hear more from the man behind the gilet.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News, Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The crazy bunch - Andy & Mike's Big Box of Bananas review

Mike wonders why the 'big box' has shrunk

Andy and Mike’s Big Box of Bananas at The Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke, on Friday, October 29

GEORGE and I were disappointed to have missed children’s entertainers Andy Day and Mike James when they performed during Newbury Comedy Festival in July. George was particularly keen to see them as the duo had won him over when they popped into his school to promote the show prior to their Corn Exchange appearance.

Big Box of Bananas was an anarchic tale of the duo’s quest to track down the password to open a mysterious giant box delivered to their day-glo flat. Through a number of dream sequences the audience was introduced to effervescent air stewardesses Tango and Fizz, a Max Headroom-style television star, and the presenters of Ocean’s Got Talent, the wonderfully-named Sunk and Wreck (get it?).

The show was aimed at ages four to 11, but probably appealed slightly more to the younger contingent in the audience, as George (aged eight) and his friend Kai (celebrating his seventh birthday), considered themselves a little too old to join in the various actions, singing and general audience participation with full gusto. However, it was perfectly clear that beneath their cool exterior the boys were thoroughly entertained, particularly by the water pistol-toting pirates who squirted the audience quite liberally during their anarchic appearance.

Day’s main job as a CBeebies presenter makes him quite a celebrity for pre-schoolers, and I suspect there were a couple of CBeebies in-jokes thrown in that went over the heads of the older children and their parents. Day and childhood friend James each played to their strengths of vocal and physical comedy respectively. The show may have been expanded from its original 2009 Edinburgh Fringe hour running time to a generous 90 minutes, but none of the content stood out as padding.

Crammed chock full of silliness, it was rather refreshing to see a children’s production that has no claims to literary credence, highbrow artistic merit or educational messages of morality.  Day and James are talented performers who deal successfully in the serious business of fun, and they thoroughly deserved the longest queue for post-show autographs that I have ever witnessed.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, November 4 2010


Monday, November 08, 2010

A naughty treat - Jenny Eclair review

Reasons to be grumpy

Jenny Eclair at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on Saturday, October 23

SHE may be the archetypical Grumpy Old Woman - having appeared as a regular talking head on the BBC Two series as well as writing the spin-off stage show - but at The Corn Exchange Jenny Eclair proved that she was a trooper by filling in for her missing support act by extending her show with a surprisingly successful question-and-answer session.

Having finally turned 50 early this year - which makes me question the validity of her appearing in the first series of Grumpy Old Women back in 2005 - Eclair is actually far from grumpy, approaching the indignities of middle aged womanhood with a cheery disposition that actually makes the years of “the change” a slightly less terrifying prospect.

Eclair’s core audience is, by her own assessment, “women of a certain age”, whom she praised for making the effort to attend the show. “You buy these tickets ages ago, then on the night you think ‘do I have to? There’s X Factor on the telly”. However, she is no strident misandrist, - despite being the focus of an academic paper discussing the politics of stand-up comedy from a feminist perspective. Her language was often fruity and her terms descriptive as she reminised on a youth mispent and now long passed, the men in the audience appeared to find plenty to laugh along with.

She may be struggling with various age-related afflictions, but Eclair made little use of the on-stage sofa for its traditional function, instead wriggling and cantering around the stage with impressive energy. One impairment was put to great use as she demonstrated the advantages of deafness when dealing with hecklers. And the onset of the perimenopause has given Eclair, always known for her jokes regarding menstruation, one final classic quip on the subject, in which a comparison to London buses comes into play.

Question-and-answer sessions can often be awkward affairs, but Eclair’s ability to make the audience feel comfortable, and the honesty and wit in her answers regarding family life and the positive impact of Grumpy Old Women on her career, made it feel less like padding and more like a heartwarming way to round off the show. So much so that Eclair appeared to decide against finishing with the usual encore, a Lady Gaga routine presumably based on the Grumpy Old Women’s Let’s Dance For Sports Relief performance. Never mind, at least we got to see the Gaga-style hat, fashioned out of a doily, part of a yoga mat and Barbie pony. If Lady Gaga is as entertaining in 25 years time as Eclair, she’ll be doing alright.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News, Thursday, October 28, 2010

Punk poet is cool with the kids - John Hegley review

Glad to wear glasses

John Hegley in Bar 1861 at The Corn Exchange, Newbury, on Saturday, October 23

IT must be great being John Hegley. You get to travel around the country meeting bizarre children and grown-ups, cheering fellow glasses wearers and singing silly songs  - which of course aren’t silly songs at all, but actually very clever and well-crafted comic poems in musical disguise.

Owing to rather quiet ticket sales - Elmer the Elephant has sold more for his Corn Exchange show on November 20, and he’s a puppet - Hegley’s lunchtime appearance was moved from the auditorium to the balcony bar. Possibly in tribute to the popular patchwork elephant, but more likely tailoring his act to the size and make-up of the audience, Hegley did not present the advertised show, The Adventures of Monsieur Robinet, but instead performed poems and songs from Animal Alphaboat, his 2010 Edinburgh Fringe children’s show.

This romp through the alphabet focussed on some of the zoology’s less favoured animals, such as the amoeba (excellently defined by one young member of the audience) along with a tale of Hegley’s “very very very [etc.] naughty brother-in-law”, a poem about his French grand mere (the link to the theme being that she named the family goldfish), and the revelation of what happened to his pet armadillo.

Hegley’s comfortable and relaxed attitude to the audience encouraged plenty of sing-alongs (dividing the assembled company into “glasses wearers, traitorous contact lens wearers and the rest”), clap-alongs, and eager young volunteers willing to come to the microphone to discuss the difference between a dog and a deckchair. He demonstrated a good understanding of children’s limited attention spans, and crammed plenty of fun into the hour-long show.

Hegley writes poetry and performs for adult audiences as well as children - in fact he was considered something of a cool rock & roll poet in his younger days, recording two John Peel Sessions for the cult BBC Radio 1 DJ in the early 1980s - and despite this being a  show aimed at children, his universal appeal meant that the grown-ups present joined in as enthusiastically as the smaller people. They might have received a stern look if they didn’t.

It was a pity that Hegley’s show didn’t sell more tickets, but for those who did attend, the move of venue made for an intimate, fun and most enjoyable show. It was a pleasure to experience Hegley in action.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, October 28, 2010

No distractions needed - Mitch Benn & The Distractions review

Letting the songs do the talking

Mitch Benn & The Distractions at New Greenham Arts on Thursday, October 21

TAKING to the stage with a belly full of curry and a head full of the finest comedy songs known to man, Mitch Benn declared New Greenham Arts to be his favourite venue in the country before launching into a high-octane set which showcased both his ability to craft a wittily topical lyric and his well-attuned ear for mimicry and pastiche.

While some comedy songs can be a  long time waiting for the punchline, Benn’s material is a giggle from the get-go, kicking off with The Interactive Song, which mixed various musical and comedy style such as “prop comedy in the style of Kate Bush” and “shaggy dog story in the style of Bruce Springsteen”. He has 15 years-worth of material to select from, and took the audience all the way back to his first-ever comic ditty, I Stole Your Heart. It was about a medical student - you can guess the rest.

Much of Benn’s material started life as topical songs written at a rate of two a week for BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show, a process he described as “a nightmare in a slow news week”, before launching into “a song that virtually wrote itself”, a Rolling Stones-style tribute to Keith Richard’s palm tree-related accident called Get Out Of That Tree.  He also demonstrated his quick-composition skills by creating a new ditty on the audience’s suggestion regarding the Royal Navy’s budget cuts during the interval, although he did have the advantage of setting it to the sea shanty tune of Drunken Sailor.

Despite The Now Show providing his most high-profile work, Benn appeared most satisfied with his musical pastiches, particularly those which would only work with the backing of his Distractions, comely bassist/keyboard player Kirsty Newton and drummer Ivan Sheppard. Highlights included West End Musical, demonstrating the key attributes of any such hit show, the quick-change Moving Around, during which the trio swapped instruments several times, and He’s Gone, which saw Newton take lead vocals to pay tribute to the strange popularity of teen death ballads in the early ‘60s.

Old Benn favourites such as Ikea - reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song - and his Shakespeare/Eminem Macbeth mash-up put in crowd pleasing appearances. But the night’s centrepiece was Benn’s current single, I’m Proud of the BBC, a list song with a meter reminiscent of the children’s literary classic Each, Peach, Pear, Plum, announcing in random  - but rhyming - order, the many shows and personalities with which BBC Television and Radio have enriched Britain's cultural heritage. Unsurprisingly, Benn’s beloved Dr Who received several mentions in the lyrics, eliciting  cheers from the audience on each occasion. Benn knows his crowd very well indeed.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, October 28 2010

Firman's lift - Pete Firman review

Slightly cooler than Paul Daniels

Pete Firman at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on Tuesday, October 19

MAGICIAN Pete Firman is everything a British conjurer should be. Slightly dishevelled in appearance and intentionally under-polished in performance, Firman is the anti-Blane, taking away the gloss, smoke and mirrors, replacing them with often groan-inducing jokes, and yet still managing to pull off stunts that can take the audience’s breath away, despite their understated presentation.

Although Firman kicked off the night with a nail in the face and a skewer through the arm, the show wasn’t a gore fest. His tricks were often well-known ones, oldies-but-goodies that the audience may have seen on television or remembered from their childhood - but when had most of them last seem them performed, live and well-crafted, in front of their eyes?

In a way, revisiting unshowy tricks such as passing a handkerchief through the microphone stand was more effective viewed through adult eyes. Without a child’s genuine belief in magic which makes anything possible, you know that you are being fooled, but however many times Firman carries out the simple move, you can’t figure out how it’s done.

Like so many magicians, Firman is an academic of his art, and along with his patter he threw in some interesting facts about the history of performance, such as the skills of the sideshow geeks who would submit themselves to various humiliations for the entertainment of their audiences. Just to prove that for all the Tommy Cooper-esque slip-ups he really knows his craft, he rounded off his performance by catching a paintball pellet in his mouth - after a few tales of how some of those who had died performing similar tricks had met their maker.

Firman is described as a comedy magician, but the two crafts have gone hand-in-hand since time immemorial, and Firman’s style is not always so far from those magicians considered to be more traditionally “straight” in their performance. In small parts he even reminded me of a younger, cooler and slightly better looking Paul Daniels. Which is not to belittle Firman in any way, but instead raises the possibility that old-style magicians such as Daniels ought to be respected for their legacy rather than laughed at for all the wrong reasons.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, October 28 2010

Monday, October 18, 2010

Why Benn is a big fan of the Beeb - Mitch Benn interview

Not to be confused with Bill Bailey

AFTER a summer schlepping round festivals armed with just a guitar, there’s nothing that  musical comedian Mitch Benn likes better once autumn draws in than to gather his band back together and go on tour - particularly if the schedule includes a stop at New Greenham Arts.

“It’s one of my favourite venues, because of its incongruity,” explains Benn. “Where once there were nuclear weapons and peace campers, there’s now an arts centre and curry house. It’s a wonderful victory for counter-culture.

“I seem to remember that the food is rather good as well.”

Benn, who performed in Greenham last year, is also looking forward to seeing a few familiar faces in the audience: “I like to play places we’ve played before because it builds up a following of people who have an understanding of what we do and what fun can be had.”

So, for those uninitiated into the world of Benn and his band The Distractions (originally so-named because they comprised two female musicians who by Benn’s own admittance were rather easier on the eye than he), what treats await on his current Rhyme Lord tour?

“Well,  I can definitely say this is the best show we’ve ever done, and it’s getting a great response,” states Benn. “People are jumping up and down and still laughing, which is quite difficult when you think about it. There’s loads of innovations, more visual and physical stuff than previous shows.”

The show involves parodies of various musical artists and styles, including a prog-rock adaptation of the children’s classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar. “I’ve always wanted to do a prog-rock opus, but it had to be based on a short book, as otherwise it would go on for ages. This is a one-and-a-half minute-long epic.

“Another thing I do is rap the plot of Macbeth, as it would be done by Eminem. That’s been going down well, which is quite surprising really, as there shouldn’t be that many people who know both Shakespeare and Eminem well enough to get it. I love the fact that it shouldn’t work, but it does.”

There’s also a song called I'm Proud of the BBC which has rather started a pro-BBC movement on the tour. “That one’s been getting standing ovations,” says Benn. “I know that the BBC do employ me a lot [he’s a regular on Radio 4’s The Now Show], but this is something I feel very passionate about. People are sick of being told how much they should hate the BBC, and they seem to have been waiting for someone to say this.

Benn says that he is the only act he knows who attracts both teenagers and their parents, a success he puts down to the fact that he’s “on before The Archers”, then spends his summers performing in the comedy tents at rock festivals. “Most of the year it’s just me and a guitar. But it’s performing with the band that I enjoy the most. It’s an opportunity for me to do things on my own terms.

“In this show, comedy and music are fused at a very fundamental level. It’s one hundred per cent both.”

Mitch Benn & The Distractions perform at New Greenham Arts on Thursday, October 21. Tickets cost £12/£10 from The Corn Exchange box office on (01635) 522733.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News, on Thursday, October 7, 2010, and online at

Kaning it - Russell Kane review

Prone to wearing slightly girly T-shirts

Russell Kane at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on Friday, October 1

RUSSELL Kane’s Fosters Comedy Award-winning Edinburgh Fringe show Smokescreens and Castles covered familiar ground for the Essex-born working class-raised comedian, but marked a pinnacle in his ongoing journey around his father.

The title referred to Russell’s childhood council home, the first in his street to be bought under Thatcher’s Right-to-Buy policy in the 1980s and to have an extension built, thereby being nicknamed “The Castle” by neighbours. But it also related to Russell’s archetypical Essex man father and the metaphorical ramparts that he, like so many men, built around their emotions.

From his comment: “Of course I loved you, I never hit you” to unsubtly rating female students for attractiveness at his son’s graduation ceremony rather than congratulate him, Kane’s father could have been presented as a cold, hard man, but Kane’s conviction that there was a heart within that could occasionally be glimpsed gave his show warmth and depth.

Kane’s constant pirouetting across the stage was sometimes distracting, and he seemed overly keen to keep to the traditional Edinburgh running time of an hour despite a series of ad-libs with the audience which meant that towards the end it appeared that he had to be selective with his material rather than present the award-winning show in its entirety.

As Kane surmised “I talk about what I know, which means that I’ve probably only got three shows in me”, and it is likely that next year he will have to find material that moves him on from his upbringing to other territories. But with an epic 60 dates of this show taking him through to May next year, he may have finally come to terms with his childhood experiences by the end of the tour.

Unusual support came from character comedian Sadie Hasler, who presented a series of vignettes from her Edinburgh show Lady Bones, displaying famous - and infamous female characters in an unexpected light. Included were poetry-loving Myra Hindley, a poised but potty-mouthed Katherine Hepburn, a post-feminist Emmeline Pankhurst, and formerly conjoined twin Charlotte Bronte, who clearly got the better end of the deal over twin sister Emily/Anne.

It was a surprise for the audience, who took a while to warm to the pace of a non-stand up format, but certainly inspired discussion in the interval, and was a bath for the eyes before the giddying whirlwind of Kane. Having previously played New Greenham Arts, and bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t tie in this date with a curry, this was a man clearly enjoying his upgrade to a larger stage, and aiming to make the most of every inch of the space available. 

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News, Thursday, October 7, 2010

Monday, October 04, 2010

A rich feast of fools - Filter, Twelfth Night review

Promo pics were either too small or surprisingly unwieldy

Twelfth Night, at The Corn Exchange, Newbury, from Tuesday, September 14 to Saturday, September 18

IF music be the food of love, love probably needed to pop an indigestion tablet after the feast of fun that was Filter’s interpretation of Twelfth Night, which returned to The Corn Exchange for a five-night run following their 2008 visit. This was Shakespeare with its guts out, quite literally as the undressed stage was littered with the wires of various musical instruments, microphones, speakers and other electronic gizmos, and a recalcitrant stage manager, huffily sat at the back and occasionally required to take a front-of-house roll during the anarchy.

The cast and musicians were equally underdressed; while only co-artistic director Oliver Dimsdale as Toby Belch wore a ruff to suggest that despite the modern gadgetry the production still doffed its cap to times past, Poppy Miller as Viola borrowed a jacket from the audience to complete her manservant guise.

Much of the focus of was on the shenanigans of drunken twerps Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who inveigled the audience into their illicit debauchery with pizza, tequila shots, a conga line and an anarchic game of “Butthead” - throwing soft balls at a velcro cap worn by Nicholas Tennant as Aguecheek. Darker was their torment of greasy steward Malvolio(artistic co-director Ferdy Roberts), whose modelling of the yellow stockings donned in a misguided attempt to woo a poised Olivia (Victoria Moseley) was truly the stuff of rock and roll nightmares.

Although it has been described as a great introduction to Shakespeare for the uninitiated, this pared-down production would probably only make sense to those with a passing familiarity with the text, as the cast doubled up for several parts, with the difference only noted by the addition of a clown’s nose to distinguish Gemma Saunders’ Feste from Maria, the wacky hat to transform Orsino into Aguecheek, or, in the case of twins Viola and Sebastian, no costume change at all. This only added to the  in the final scene, as Miller, in both parts, flitted from one passionate embrace to another with the twins’ respective loves.

Purists hat consider abridged and tweaked versions of Shakespeare’s work to be akin to heresy might be appeased by the fact that the production was presented in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Lively, crazy and unexpected, I am sure that Shakespeare himself would have approved.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News, September 23, 2010

A darkness descends on Newbury - Periplum, Arquiem review

What an atmosphere... I love a party with a happy atmosphere...

Arquiem, by Periplum, Newbury town centre, Friday, September 3 and Saturday, September 4

THERE were very strange goings-on afoot in Newbury town centre over the weekend, as a cart trundled its way from the Market Place, through Mansion House Street and Bridge Street and into Northbrook Street, and back again, telling a dark story of love, murder, and execution.

The crowd was shifted constantly by the cart, stiltwalkers and mysterious perambulators, and glowing pyrotechnics, as they were transformed by the performance from curious modern-day locals into a mob from another era, first hunting down and then baying for the blood of a teenage boy who has apparently killed the girl he loved to preserve her perfection.

Presented by Periplum as part of The Corn Exchange’s outdoor arts programme funded by the Greenham Common Trust, Arquiem was a free 45-minute performance based on Blake’s Songs of Innocence & Experience and Browning’s Porphyria's Lover, combining theatre, acrobatics, doom-laden music and stunning imagery into an unsettling and memorable experience. Corpses twitched underneath veils, condemning priest-like figures stalked through the crowd, and a manic-eyed executioner asked who present had not been tempted to commit such a crime, while taunting the boy as if a rag doll.

As a white balloon soared skywards - the killer’s soul, or that of his love? - the boy protested his innocence, but it was to no avail - the crowd had seen the crime committed for themselves, the shadows cast large on the walls of the tall Bridge Street buildings. The revelation of his very young age - just 13 - came too late. The crowd had spoken, and the boy was hung.

It was not always been easy to see and hear the performers owing to the size of the crowd and the layout of Newbury’s darkened streets, and it appeared that an unfortunate fault with the sound on Friday night rather muted the actual moment of the accused’s hanging, leaving some of the crowd more baffled than baying. However, many said they would return the next night, and more prepared, weave their way closer to the action to truly sense the terrifying, yet vibrant atmosphere of this fascinating performance.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News, September 9 2010

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Polished pop - Westlife review

Aw, bless them

Party in the Paddock: Westlife, at Newbury Racecourse, on Saturday, August 14

WHEN Westlife started out in 1998 they were viewed as a “Baby Boyzone” - Ronan Keating even co-managed them for a while - but 12 years on, the Irish four-piece are nearly all married men and fathers in their early 30s, with 14 UK number ones under their belts, and a barrage of adoring fans. Along the way, they have shed a member and developed into one of the classiest pop acts around.

Although they long ago slipped the shackles of being a boyband with their Rat Pack tribute album Allow Us To Be Frank, Westlife do not quite fit the title “manband”; they are not hairy enough for that, and there is also something rather too asexual about them, highlighted by their all-too-literal dance moves during a cover of Kings of Leon’s Sex On Fire. Westlife shouldn’t try to be raunchy. It’s just wrong.

What they do pull off extremely successfully is a finely polished pop performance that showcases surprisingly strong vocals - as demonstrated acapella at one point - simple but well executed dance steps (not a bar stool in sight), and a rapport with the audience that suggests that Westlife’s remaining four members are still enjoying their place in the music world; apologising for bringing the “Irish weather” with them, and bringing the winner of the Ladies’ Day best dressed competition (hailing from Dublin, coincidentally) to the stage for a kiss with each band member.

Backed by a live band and performing plenty their big hits, the boys also pulled a number of surprising cover versions out of the bag, including Beyonce’s Halo, and Black Eyed Pea’s I’ve Got A Feeling. They also fitted in four costume changes - mainly all-black, although they did add a possibly ill-advised splash of colour for one segment. These clean-cut men definitely look their most handsome in monochrome.

Westlife may be best known for their ballads, such as Flying Without Wings and You Raise Me Up, but their set did include plenty of up-tempo moments, Kian Egan even briefly donning a guitar for a cover of Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back in Town. An upbeat vibe was definitely needed to help get the bedraggled Ladies’ Day crowd dancing happily under their umbrellas and helping them to forget that much of their finery had been ruined by a downpour just prior to the performance. Their dresses may have looked like rags, but Westlife ensured that the ladies at the races were still glad.

* Published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, August 19

Friday, August 13, 2010

Naughty boy - Jim Jefferies review

Jim Jefferies. Looking surprisingly good considering his excesses

Newbury Comedy Festival: Jim Jefferies, at The Corn Exchange, Newbury, on Wednesday, July 28

JIM Jefferies is rude, crude and very, very lewd, and I thought his show might prove a bit of a challenge to an empowered female. To be honest, I didn’t expect to like him much.

I certainly didn’t expect to laugh so much, to come out of the show raving about him, and to add Jefferies to my “would actually pay to see again” list of comedy acts.

While the content of Jefferies’ show can barely be touched upon in these pages - bringing pleasure to women and undertaking an unusal favour for an old friend just about covers it - the high smut factor was tempered by an unusual warmth and fullness of heart in its telling.

While there was a large number of already-converted Jefferies followers at his Newbury Comedy Festival show, indicated by a large cheer when he asked how many of the audience had seen him before, Jefferies passed the ultimate litmus test by raising some laughs out of at least some of the brave volunteer stewards on duty.

Jefferies’ self-confessed hard-living, depression and past health problems don’t appear to have caught up with the 33-year-old Australian professionally, and despite taking two bottles of beer on to the stage with him he remained on top of his game for the entire 75 minutes. He dealt with a couple of well-lubricated hecklers slickly, while gleaning some fun out of them, and genuinely seemed to enjoy his time at The Corn Exchange.

There was one passing remark about Muslims which was inappropriate, and his thoughts about gay women being miserable while gay men are lots of fun were cliched to say the least. When you stretch boundaries, it’s hard to do so without snapping them occasionally.

In the main though, Jefferies’ show was great adult entertainment, and although he is a regular guest on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Fighting Talk, it was refreshing to watch an entire set that wasn’t already familiar from television or radio. Jefferies’ comedy isn’t good clean fun, but sometimes it’s alright to take a walk on the dark side. 

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday August 5, and on Newbury Today at

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What's all the Rush? - A short essay on the influence of Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand on the lyrics of Canadian prog rockers Rush

People often say to me: "Smudgie, I have heard that Rush's lyricist  Neil Peart is heavily influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand. Can you tell me more about that?"

And I say "No. I know nothing about either of them."

But I like to find out things about stuff. And these are the things I've discovered about this stuff. And my opinions on the things I've discovered. About this stuff.

Ayn Rand. She looked a bit like Blixa Bargeld, don't you think

Ayn Rand was a Russian-born philosopher (1905-1982) who emigrated to the USA in 1925, escaping Russia's Communist regime on a visa to visit relatives then marrying a US citizen. Although Rand's family sympathised with the revolutionaries and Rand benefitted  from the regime in being among the first women in Russia allowed to attend university, her family didn't prosper that well under the Communists; her father's pharmacy business was confiscated by the Bolsheviks, the family had to flee St Petersburg for the Crimea, and later her parents and sisters were refused permission to join her in the USA.

Rand's negative experiences of Communism appear to have impacted directly on her philosophical system of Objectivism and its focus on the rights and priorities of the individual over that of society. This philosophy was most strongly propounded in her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, in which the most talented industrialists, artists and scientists go on strike and retreat from society, effectively "stopping the motor of the world" and leading to a collapse of the economy, and eventually the entire social structure of western civilisation. Rand's Objectivism can be seen as supporting a laissez-faire (free market), capitalistic approach to the economy and structure of society. Bet Thatcher loved her.

Rush. They looked like a Canadian prog rock band. And they were.

So, where do hairy rockers Rush fit into all this? The two Rush songs most obviously influenced by Rand's work are Anthem and 2112, for which lyricist Neil Peart directly credits Rand's inspiration. In fact, the lyrical source of both songs can be traced to the same 1938 Rand novel, also called Anthem.

Anthem the novel has a similar theme to George Orwell's 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, focusing on an individual's attempt to rebel against a totalitarian or dystopian regime (ie a nanny state gone bad). Such themes are also raised in the 1998 film Antz, and, to a lesser extent, A Bug's Life, released the same year. The Rush song Anthem (1975) appears to be a call to creative arms for those oppressed by the traditional expectations of society, while the epic 20-minute 2112 (1977) tells the story of a man living in a dystopian future who discovers a guitar from a previous time, only to have it destroyed by the priests who control his world.

Because of the credit Peart openly gave Rand and her Objective philosophy for its influence on his work, Rush were unfairly accused as having right-wing leanings by many, in particular by the left-leaning British music press. However, Objectivism is clearly at odds with all collective regimes, not just communism and socialism, but also facism. In its purest form, it is neither right or left-wing, but celebrates the freedom of the self to live and create as each individual so wishes. This appears to be the Objectivism that Peart reflects in his lyrics, and makes me consider that Rush were (and are) in fact the Liberal Democrats (pre-Conservative coalition) of the rock world.

Do you know, I might even read the book. Then I'll really know what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Swear-free comedy fun - James Campbell review

James Campbell: What I didn't mention in my review is that he is really quite attractive. Although, to be fair, this photo is five years old

James Campbell: Comedy 4 Kids, at The Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, on Saturday, July 24

AS we sat down for James Campbell’s Saturday morning children’s show at The Watermill, George asked: “so is this like the comedy you see, but with no swears?” An hour later, I could answer: “yes”. For Campbell’s plan is to introduce children to the art of stand-up comedy, with the swearing taken out, but the funny bits left in. As it happens, the bits he leaves in are very funny indeed.

Campbell’s trick is not to tailor his material too blatantly towards children: as he points out on his website, “most comedians are perfectly suitable for children, and a lot more would be if they would only stop saying rude words”. Of course there were lots of mentions of school, and the introductory joke about hiding from a giraffe was designed to make even the youngest present giggle (the show was recommended for ages six and above). There was also the odd reference clearly aimed at the parents in the audience, such as cappucino being “the gateway drug to coffee”.

But Campbell’s comedy was sophisticated, from the way he intertwined and returned to various tales, including an apparently spontaneous one about a badly-scheduled performance in Australia, inspired by the early hour of his Watermill show, to the detail in his material, such as a five-year-olds description of his recreation of Picasso’s Guernica in dried pasta. He also looked at Star Wars’ failure to address environmental issues: “there’s not much point in trying to save the planet when you’re blowing up other planets”, considered the logistics of travelling ot school by catapult, and wondered why there are no tractor-themed computer games.

“Something can be funny because it’s silly,” explained Campbell, “or it may be funny because it’s true. This song is funny because it’s wrong,” he added, before launching into an acapella performance of  a “love song” with a dark, dark punchline; a precursor to his forthcoming Edinburgh Fringe show, which will see him performing with a live band.

“There were swears, Mum”, George pointed out to me after the show. “He said ‘idiot’ and ‘fart’”. Parents who don’t mind submitting delicate ears to such language may be interested to know that Campbell will be bringing his Edinburgh show, Comedy and Songs for Kids, to The Anvil, Basingstoke on September 26, and South Street, Reading on October 9. He also visits schools, and would like headteachers to be aware that he is “cheaper than you think”.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, July 29

Pitch perfect - Plested & Brown review

Plested and Brown: They're not really married

Newbury Comedy Festival :Plested and Brown’s The Perfect Wife Roadshow, at The Corn Exchange, Newbury, on Friday July 16

THEY may be the resident theatre company at New Greenham Arts, but 2010 should be remembered as the year that Plested and Brown went mega - in West Berkshire, anyway - with a sell-out performance at The Corn Exchange of their latest comedy show, complete with a live band and “live girls”.

Treading similar ground to 2003’s The Reconditioned Wife Show, and featuring the same characters, David and Lizzie Barry - now “Dr Lizzie” (Clare Plested) thanks to an internet doctorate - The Perfect Wife Roadshow was a bullet-point guide to how a wife can improve a tired marriage and stop being a “seven-year b***h” through the application of advice such as “put a sock in it”, “brush it off” and “surrender”. Dr Lizzie’s clearly imperfect husband Dave (Adam Brown) couldn’t believe his luck at being the focus of such devotion, and was oblivious that these “bullet points” did not always play out to his advantage... or was he?

The Perfect Wife Roadshow was inspired by the Surrendered Wives movement, which suggests that women relinquish control of their husbands’ lives and behave in a more feminine manner, and is rich source of comedy material (although it transpired that its advocates didn’t have much of a sense of humour when they demanded that The Surrendered Wife Show was renamed “Reconditioned”. Unsurprisingly Plested and Brown avoided annoying them again this time round).

While Corn Exchange pantomime favourites Plested and Brown’s previous self-penned shows have been two-handers, The Perfect Wife Roadshow was a glitzy full-scale affair, complete with the on-stage band and three additional “Wives” - advocates of Dr Lizzie - who obliged to step into her domestic scenarios as various household implements, from shower curtains to an ironing board. They also provided some belting musical interludes to illustrate the bullet points - courtesy of Plested and Brown’s collaboration with musical director Paul Herbert - and a foil to Dave as it dawned on him that his wife may not always have his best interests at heart.

Many of the audience would have seen the show in its developmental stage during Plested and Brown’s regular “Mucking Around” sessions at New Greenham Arts, and this investment, plus the warmth that so many around West Berkshire feel towards their local talent, meant that this was always going to be an easy crowd to please. However, it turned out that Plested and Brown have delivered another zinger. Some may miss the intimacy of their earlier smaller-scale two-handers, but the central duo held their own in the expanded forum, and while they may have been outsung by their three acolytes, their instinct for physical and verbal comedy loomed as large as ever.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, July 22