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