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

A pear of quality comics - Mark Watson and Danny Bhoy review

Don't mention the Magners: Mark Watson

Newbury Comedy Festival: Mark Watson and Danny Bhoy at The Corn Exchange, Newbury, on Saturday, July 17

WHEN I told someone I was going to see Mark Watson, they asked if he was a singer. What I should have replied was “no, he’s the guy from the Magners pear cider advert”, because Watson fears this has been his main contribution to society. He explores this in his Edinburgh Fringe show Do I Know You?, showcased during Newbury Comedy Festival in a double-header with Danny Bhoy.

On tour last year, Watson explained, he suffered a crisis of confidence,  brought on by too much time alone in hotel rooms and his looming 30th birthday, leading him to question his choice of career and his place in the world. Looking to his two heroes, Barack Obama and Derren Brown, he considered that if he had as much power of them, he would be unable to resist the urge to abuse it in the most schoolboy manner.

While Watson’s comedy is not of the “laugh until your sides hurt” school, his material is consistent, even in its developmental stage, and his little self-deprecating asides to the audience that draw you in and create a genuine warmth in the room. He also drew pleasure from attempting to play a trick on a member of the audience who left the auditorium, enjoying it all the more when the man scuppered his plan by hiding rather than returning to his seat.

Watson’s show had a redemptive element, as he detailed the joy of new fatherhood, a teacher’s impact on his eventual career, and his efforts to tell off minor wrongdoers by booing at them and converse with strangers - even those who only recognise him from the cider advert. 

Watson described his performance as “rambling”, and he apologised several times, both for swearing - even though it was in the context of mentioning a viscous comment about him posted on a Youtube page - and for the content of the show, which he is currently honing for Edinburgh next month. However, he did not appear to lack confidence - he has now dropped the Welsh accent he used to perform with in favour of his “real” voice - and he had nothing to be sorry for. Apart from that advertising campaign, maybe.

The lesser-known Danny Bhoy was an excellent complement to Watson. Also previewing his Edinburgh Fringe show, By Royal Disappointment, this handsome Scot considered how Chamberlain would have worded a text message declaring war on Germany - “Invade Poland? Not cool :-( “ - and how annoying a Scrabble opponent Shakespeare would be with his propensity to invent new words.

The main theme of Bhoy’s hour was the social awkwardness that ruined his introduction to the Queen, and means he remembers his big moment on US TV’s The Late Show With David Letterman only for a backstage meeting with film star Matt Damon when he told him he’d “never seen Titanic”. Damon wasn’t in Titanic. That was Leonardo DiCaprio.

It was a well-honed show, wrapped and ready for Edinburgh Fringe. He’s been performing stand-up for over a decade, and is apparently already big in Australia. I reckon the Aussies are on to something with this one.

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

Teen comedy Matt-erial - You Must Be Joking 2010 review (winner Matt Richardson)

YMBJ 2010 winner Matt Richardson. Bless his cottons

Newbury Comedy Festival: You Must Be Joking final, at The Corn Exchange, Newbury, on Tuesday, July 13

JUDGES made an unexpected but inspired choice in naming Didcot teenager Matt Richardson the winner of the 2010 You Must Be Joking (YMBJ) stand-up comedy contest. His act may have lacked the polish of some of the relatively more experienced performers, and he crammed so much material into his 10-minute slot that sometimes his delivery was a little hurried, but judges Steve Lount, a comedy producer who programmed much of this year’s Newbury Comedy Festival, and Nigel Morgan, of Corn Exchange sponsor Morgan PR, spotted great potential in the quantity, quality, freshness and originality of  Richardson’s material.

Creating a great rapport with the audience stemming from a likeability described by judge Morgan as “self deprecation without self loathing”, Richardson explained why he won’t touch drugs until his questions were answered: “are magic mushrooms one of your five a day?”; his fear of dying in a car crash with Abba on the stereo and his best mates being “the only three people who know I don’t want a Facebook tribute page, and they’re in the car with me”; and being young and middle class: “the nearest I’ve got to sex, drugs and rock & roll is hummus, cheese and Snow Patrol”.

Richardson’s material was age-appropriate without being too student-centric; although his youthfulness made his ability all the more impressive, his act should age well beyond young adulthood, like the cheese of which he is so fond. Good luck to Richardson when he takes part in the final of the Chortle Student Comedy Awards at Edinburgh Fringe next month.

With a high standard among the 10 finalists, other standout performances came from the softly-spoken and attractively bearded James Abbott, who found a rich seam of comedy in his experiences of online supermarket shopping, sparky bhangra beatboxer Mickey Sharma, and Russ Powell, MC of the monthly Punchlines comedy night at the Deja Vu bar in Reading. A more likeable James Cordon type with some nice tales of his Brighton childhood, Powell revealed an unexpected talent for voices and songs towards the end of his set.

Considering that most of the finalists had only been performing stand-up for a matter of months it’s not surprising that some struggled to come up with 10 minutes of consistent material, and a few otherwise good sets were let down through the disappointing use of inappropriate references. Student Ben Hustwayte made several derogatory mentions of “gypsies”, a term which surely fell out of wide usage before he was born, while musical act Stevie Gray completed his set with a song about domestic violence, an issue which should never be a source for comedy, however cleverly worded.

Chris Norton Walker’s use of silence at the beginning of his act was brave, but would have worked better as part of a longer set; it didn’t leave much of his 10 minute slot for other material. In contrast, William Lee banged through his set at such a pace that he ran out of jokes before his time was up, and had to make a rather clunky gear change to chat to the audience for the last couple of minutes. Darkest material of the night came from Scotsman Tony Dunn, whose poetic stories of Postman Pat, Mr Kellogg and Prince William verged on the disturbing. More down to earth was Will Marsh, whose self-confessed “unsexy” Brummie accent and tales of London life planted him firmly in the real world.

The compere was CBBC presenter Iain Stirling, who made good use of the staff of Newbury camera store Jessops who had attended each heat, and presented Stirling with a branded shirt to remember them by. The audience played a central part in the success of the contest; free entry ensured a turn out good enough to upgrade the final from The Corn Exchange’s Bar 1861 to the main auditorium, creating a vibrant and expectant atmosphere that tested the mettle of the contestants.

With a quick Google revealing that four of the five previous winners still have thriving comedy careers - the fifth focusing more on her journalism work - it appears that YMBJ is a stand-up contest well worth winning. Long may it continue playing a central part in the Newbury Comedy Festival.

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