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