Thursday, March 31, 2011

A right rocking knees-up - review of Chas & Dave

Chas & Dave at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on Thursday, March 17

I’VE always meant to catch Chas & Dave on their regular visits to The Corn Exchange, but thought I’d missed the opportunity when Dave Peacock announced his retirement in 2009 following the death of his wife - and jumped at the chance when he decided to put his plans on hold for one final tour with Charles “Chas” Hodges.

There’s something very heartwarming about Chas & Dave’s distinctive and original “rockney” sound, mixing rock & roll with musical hall lyrics and a pub singalong style. EastEnders ought to establish them as the Queen Vic’s house band to cancel out some of Albert Square’s never-ending misery (it would make better use of the pub’s piano as well). They are loved by musicians from Led Zeppelin who had them open their legendary Knebworth show in 1979, to The Libertines, who cited them as direct inspiration for their sound. They also received the ultimate “cool” accolade when they played Glastonbury in 2005.

The first part of the show was a rip-roaring journey through Hodges and Peacock’s musical influences and early days as session musicians, demonstrating how strongly early rock & roll and boogie-woogie influenced their musical style. They moved on to their hits in the second half, from 1979’s Gertcha to 1986’s Snooker Loopy, and I doubt anyone who grew up in the 1980s has truly forgotten The Sideboard Song or Ain’t No Pleasing You, even if they’ve tried to (a quick survey among friends suggested that Chas & Dave incite quite contrasting feelings).

Joined on stage by Hodges’ rather comely son Nick on drums, replacing the long-serving Mick Burt, with Hodges on piano and Peacock on bass, the duo’s oh-so-English vocals are a central part to their sound, their voices merging in a way that only performers who have worked together for so many years manage to achieve. It’s all great fun, but also a demonstration of musicianship that goes deeper than the comedic stylings and witticisms of their hit songs.

While the show was an uplifting celebration of the pair’s 36 years together, there was no doom-laden sense of finality about proceedings (and I saw A-ha on their farewell tour in December so I know what I’m looking for). I might be wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out not to be Chas & Dave’s final visit to Newbury after all.  “Nobody else can do that”, commented Peacock after the frenetic ending to Rabbit (“Yup yup rabbit rabbit bunny jabber rabbit...”). This pair of musicians look as if they’re having far too much fun to give up on this touring lark entirely just yet.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News, Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thursday, March 24, 2011

It's just not cricket - review of Miles Jupp

Miles Jupp - Fibber In The Heat, at New Greenham Arts, Newbury, on Thursday, March 10

HAVING been rather burnt by an uncomfortable evening spent in the company of Will Hodgson and his disconcerting tales of a childhood being bullied, I tend to shy away from storytelling comedians, so it was probably rather fortuitous that I hadn’t done my advance research and twigged that Miles Jupp’s show was one long tale surrounding the England cricket team’s 2006 tour of India.

Inspired mainly in my attendance by my fondness for Jupp’s character Archie the Inventor in the CBeebies series Balamory, I was aware that the actor also performed stand-up comedy, but I hadn’t expected him to combine the two in such a well-told based-on-a-true story of dreams achieved and thwarted, as Jupp described how, jaded with his acting career and buoyed by England’s success in the 2005 Ashes, he made it his aim to break into the world of cricket journalism.

Blagging his way into the press pack with vague promises of some piecework for BBC Scotland and Swansea’ s Western Mail (who were only interested in anything to do with Welsh cricketer Simon Jones - who was injured before the first match), Jupp soon discovered he was well out of his depth among a group of experienced hacks and legendary players-turned-pundits. and by the end of the month-long tour had concluded that there’s no such thing as a dream job, you should never get too close to your heroes, and the view from the press box isn’t all that special.

The joy in the performance was in Jupp’s turn of phrase as he staggered from one disastrous event to the next; trying to avoid sunburn from the glare bounced directly off the pitch into the press box, and attempting to resemble the photograph on the illicit press pass handed to him when his own promised one didn’t transpire. Even the scatological was so eloquently put as to transform a description of a nasty dose of Delhi belly into a voyage of self-discovery, as Jupp realised he had taken on more than he could chew - and not just from the roadside food stall he had stopped at for an ill-advised snack.

Jupp’s trip to India may have been ultimately doomed in terms of turning him onto a new career path, but among the tales of mishaps, loneliness and uncertainty there was an element of triumph in the audacity of his attempts to follow his dream, and his realisation that as a fan of anything there’s no better place than to be among other fans, revelling in the thrill and vibrancy of a crowd enjoying the escapism of an experience that is a million miles away from their day job, whatever that may be.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hang on to your ego - review of Neil Innes

Neil Innes at Arlington Arts Centre, Snelsmore, on Friday, March 4

THE MUSICAL force behind Monty Python and The Rutles, Neil Innes can certainly turn out a good tune, but he also has a great love for words, philosophy, and the power of ideas. All of which feature in his show, A People’s Guide To World Domination and his concept of the Ego Warrior; people cocking a snook and blowing a raspberry at those who try to tell them what to think.

It’s food for thought among the joyful silliness of Innes’ career, laid out here in tantalisingly brief nods to his past life as “The Seventh Python” - a performance of a missing song from Monty Python And The Holy Grail called Run Away, a medley of gems from “The Prefab Four” aka The Rutles, and a blast from the past in the form of some wonders from the earliest days of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, along with some great anecdotes about the trad jazz movement that inspired them.

Railing against cyberspace in favour of “face mail in the meat zone” - ie real life interaction (although I was amused afterwards to discover that he’s a rather prolific and popular Twitterer), Innes’ real bug bear is the poor quality of television today, dismissing it all as “eye candy”. “I used to be eye candy,” he sighed. “Now I’m eye pickle.” That may well be, but having played a part in such seminal televisual classics as Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Do Not Adjust Your Set, it’s fair to say that he’s well placed to comment on the medium. 

Innes’ Ego Warrior movement is a semi-serious idea; the rebellion of the individual against mass media, mass politics and mass thought, complete with its own protest songs, badge and swearing-in ceremony. But really it’s just all a fabulous excuse to play some of his lesser known songs from the Rutland Weekend Television series and other sources, and encourage the audience to join in whenever possible - entirely of their own free will, of course!

Luckily the crowd was as knowledgeable and enthusiastic as required, if a little smallish - possibly as a result as of clashing commitments to comedian Milton Jones, who played The Corn Exchange the same night. They joined in enthusiastically (and reasonably tunefully) whenever encouraged, and although I’m sure there wasn’t a person present who wouldn’t have liked to hear The Rutles’ How Sweet To Be An Idiot (the song that launched Oasis’ career), everyone had a quite spiffing time.
  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News, Thursday, March 10, 2011

Friday, March 11, 2011

Howlin' Loud - review of Howlin' Lord and Case Hardin

Howlin’ Lord and Case Hardin at Ace Space, Newbury, on Friday, February 18

WITH folk-tinged music making its mark at the Brits last week in the form of gongs for Mumford & Sons and Reading’s Laura Marling, it was perfect timing for Newbury community venue Ace Space to prove that folk can rock, with a Friday night showcase of two bands influenced by the Americana strain of the genre.

Well, I say “rock”, but in fact  Reading-based Case Hardin, featuring Ace Space stalwart Adam Kotz on banjo and mandolin - an instrument featured too rarely in popular music outside of REM’s Loosing My Religion - stripped back their more usual plugged-in sound for an acoustic, percussion-less set. Gathered around a single microphone for a performance reminiscent of the aforementioned Mumford & Sons on the Brits (although, Case Hardin pointed out, they’d been using that technique for years) allowed them to rework some of the more upbeat moments from their 12-year back catalogue into something more intimate yet still lively.

Hairy Bristolians Howlin’ Lord, led by their intriguing self-titled frontman, aka Mark Legassick, were a much louder entity, mixing some really quite lovely tunes - Bright Lights being a particularly highlight - with unexpected high-octane covers such as La Bamba. A sweaty, amusing and entertaining set from the trio proved that country-folk can get people up and dancing as much as thinking and listening.

Recently redecorated by its dedicated committee members and team of volunteers, Ace Space has been transformed into an excellent live venue, the small stage’s proscenium arch and star-spangled backdrop framing each act  rather pleasingly. While the venue’s monthly Unplugged events are mainly quite sedate affairs in terms of audience interaction, Friday’s gig proved that with ample dancing space, when punters want to kick up their heels and have a rocking old time of it along with the bands, Ace Space is more than happy to oblige.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News, Thursday, March 3

Monday, March 07, 2011

Hugelaidbackchoonz - review of Tropic of Comfort by Isomeric

Tropic of Comfort by Isomeric

If you like your tunes so laid back they’re horizontal, with silky smooth vocals and lounge-lizard beats, then this album release by new Newbury-based chill duo Isomeric, aka West End musical director Griff “Hugechoonz” Johnson and Simon “Brother of Norman” Cook should chillax you better than any infinity pool ever could.

Released on Johnson and Cook’s own Kollaidal Music label, Tropic Of Comfort features the beautiful vocals of, among others, former Wicked and Oliver! star - and Brian May collaborator - Kerry Ellis, floating effortlessly over the delicate down-tempo beats provided by Johnson and Cook.

In this crazy world, Isomeric provide a moment of calm. Who knew such beauty could be produced in Newbury. So take a trip, relax, and float downstream... somewhere a lot more exotic than the Kennet & Avon Canal.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Fitting it in - keep fit feature

Esther Fairfax, teacher of the Lotte Berk Technique

YOU ate enough over Christmas to see you through to the Spring, the weight loss adverts are on the telly, and gym membership offers are dropping through your door. New year, new you, is your resolution, but that hasn’t motivated you beyond February in the past, so why should it in 2011?

The answer might be to try something a bit different - be it challenging, fun, fulfilling or a little bit crazy, there are plenty of activities out there which are a world away from pounding the pavements, providing a social side and working wonders for the soul as much as the body.

There’s plenty out there to chose from - and West Berkshire certainly has its fair share of hidden gems. With this little lot to try your hand at, you need never go near a treadmill again...

Buggyfit - New mums often want to get back into shape, but it’s hard to squeeze in a fitness plan when you have a baby. Buggyfit gives you no such excuse, as it’s an outdoor exercise class which fuses your cherub’s pushchair into the workout. 

These classes are designed to allow post natal mums to exercise safely, but having attempted this one myself, I can confirm that the Buggyfit workout is no walk in the park; it’s a combination of powerwalking and toning exercises that burn fat, raise the heartrate and strengthen neglected muscle groups.

“It’s about friendship and a support network as well as the exercise,” says local Buggyfit instructor Elizabeth Masters. “It’s sad when a mum has to stop because she’s gone back to work, but some are able to keep coming as long as they’ve got a buggy. Some of the ladies are really hardcore - they always turn up, whatever the weather.”

The classes utilise the terrain with park benches providing convenient staging posts. Buggyfit classes can be attended as soon as mums have been given the medical all-clear for exercise; however, they really need to be pushing a three-wheeler; a travel system might make the workout a little bit too challenging.

Ceroc - Featuring a dance style fusing jive and salsa, ceroc classes are as much a social scene as a form of exercise. Indeed, Newbury instructor Val Rokov believes that most people start attending for the social element of the evenings rather than viewing the classes as a potential new fitness regime.

“However, it does have massive benefits in terms of weight and fitness,” she says. “I started dancing 13 years ago, and haven’t returned to the gym since.”

Ceroc dancers are certainly put through their paces; pedometers have shown that dancers can take 12,000 in an evening. But Val says that ceroc is easy to learn, and beginners are made to feel very welcome - “no one is ever a wallflower. Three hours just fly by, and everyone ends on such a high.”

Forces Fit - Military-style classes led by current or former members of the Armed Forces may sound like a bit of a scary concept, but instructor Kevin Gormley says that Forces Fit is not just aimed at those already at the peak of physical fitness. “Classes are divided into ability groups, so beginners are very welcome, even those who may not have exercised regularly for a long time. It really is for everyone,” he says.

“It’s enjoyable, supportive, friendly and effective. Going to the gym can be like being on an underground train - no one talks to each other. We describe this as ‘training with a breath of fresh air’.”

Classes are held twice a week all year round in Goldwell Park, Newbury - the one with the gruelling hill. And the Forces Fit team don’t let a little thing like darkness get in the way of their workout, with two evening classes a week being held all year round.

Hatha yoga - “The brilliant thing about yoga,” says Lucy Malkin, “is that there are so many styles. Some are strenuous and give you a really tough workout, while others focus more on meditation. It means that yoga can suit everybody, from athletes to people in their 80s. A decent yoga teacher is one who knows how to modify a style to suit the individual.”

Lucy focuses on Hatha yoga, which covers “all physical styles of yoga”, meaning her classes can be modified to cater for old injuries, address specific physical issues, or enhance the body’s metabolic rate.

“Central to the ethos of yoga is better learning to inhabit the body we’ve been given rather than striving for the body beautiful,” says Lucy. “It’s about feeling more relaxed and comfortable in your skin, and being able to deal with stress.

“It clearly has physical health benefits - it can make people lean, strong and supple - but this is just a happy side affect for a lot of people.  Some people find their inner peace through working out hard, but others find it through being very quite and gentle. Yoga is non-judgemental.”

Kettlebell - Like a cannonball with handles, kettlebells are used by the Russian military to build up muscular strength. They are becoming popular for use at home - although you do need the room to swing the proverbial cat. However, group kettlebell training sessions are also catching on, such as those run by The Workout Team.

“Kettlebells provide a fundamental workout, using the body in the way it was designed,” explains The Workout Team’s Ria Ingleby. “They improve overall strength and endurance, work on core muscles and are good for posture. The kettlebell swing is a fundamental exercise; it really does work the whole body.”

Ria suggests that even those intending to a kettlebell at home should attend a short course in order to learn how to use them safely.

Lotte Berk Technique - West Berkshire’s best kept fitness secret has surely got to be the intimate and friendly classes run by Esther Fairfax, daughter of fitness pioneer Lotte Berk. The lithe and effervescent septuagenerian Esther and her long-term pupils are a wonderful advertisement for the benefits of the technique, which is based on dancers’ warm-up exercises - “without the dancing,” laughs Esther.

“These exercises are very small, very intense and very deep,” she explains. “Everything is based around the ‘tilt’, which my mother brought into the fitness industry, and for which I don’t think she gets enough credit. They create a smooth, firm line, not bulges.”

Many of Esther’s pupils demonstrate that a lifetime of exercise really does pay off, with her oldest student being aged 86 - “although we do have some students under 40”. The secret, she says, is that the technique keeps muscles strong so that joints remain well supported.

The women attending the class I observed at Esther’s carpeted dance studio in Hungerford had been following the method for between 25 and 40 years, with fabulous results. However, Esther says that newcomers are welcome. “Although you will never feel as bad as you do the day after your first class,” she says. “It puts muscles you didn’t know you had into shock.”

Newbury Fencing Club - It may not provide the gruelling cardio-vascular workout of some other activities, but fencing gives you the opportunity to test out your mastery of tactics and timing. “Fencing has become a lot more accessible as a spectator sport,”  says Imad Rahman of Newbury Fencing Club. “It’s certainly something you can take up as an adult - we run beginners’ courses three times a year to introduce people to the basics.”

But what about the risk of injury? Those points look sharp... “The weapons are designed to break very easily,” says Imad. “The most common injuries in fencing are actually muscle pulls, when people haven’t warmed up properly.”

Pole fitness - Put images of high heels and skimpy costumes out of your head; pole fitness has more in common with gymnastics, with the pole being used as a vertical bar.

“People have preconceived ideas, but it’s about fitness, not dancing,” says teacher Kate Tolhurst. “Gymnasts and dancers tend to pick it up really quickly, although you don’t need the strength to begin with to get up to a similar standard. 

“Pole fitness makes you really aware of the body’s posture; it’s really good for you physiologically, as well as providing a great cardio workout. It’s also very empowering. Your confidence grows as you learn the moves and begin to perform routines. It’s also really sociable. There’s a massive ‘pole’ community out there.”

Zumba - One of the liveliest workouts around, zumba is a fitness programme based on international music and dance styles that aims to turn every class into a party. “The moves are quite wiggly,” says Newbury instructor Emma Stanley, who runs classes at Greenacre Leisure Club and Nu Yuu. “It’s great if you’re trying to whittle down your waist.

“There are a lot of ‘secret squats’ hidden behind the dance moves as well, which are great for your legs and thighs. I’ve seen the difference it’s made to my own body - it’s the one class I’ve done which really helps you lose the weight.”

Moves can be modified to factor in knee or hip problems, and there’s no right or wrong way of doing it: “Just follow the instructor, and if you go wrong it doesn’t matter,” says Emma. “Most people love it, because it doesn’t feel like a fitness class. It really does have a party atmosphere.”

Contact info:

Buggyfit -, phone 07920 826966
Ceroc -, phone 07958 587256
Forces Fit- phone 07711 856393
Hatha yoga (Stable Yoga) -, phone 01635 250832
Kettlebell (The Workout Team) -, phone 07775 862076 
Lotte Berk Technique -, phone 01488 683 609
Newbury Fencing Club -, phone 01235 559481
Pole Fitness (Kate Tolhurst) -, phone 07748 628 882
Zumba (Emma Stanley) -, phone 07905 369 351

  • First published in Out & About (Newbury Weekly News), February 2010

A Peaceful moment in the Great War - Scamp Theatre, Private Peaceful review


Private Peaceful, at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on Tuesday, February 15 and Wednesday, February 16

WHEN the then Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo wrote the novel Private Peaceful in 2003, he highlighted the plight of the 306 British soldiers shot in the First World War by their own side for desertion or cowardice, dismissed as “worthless men” rather than being treated as the victims of shellshock which many of them were. In 2006 the Government finally granted pardons to these men, but the story still resonates, both in the novel and this one-man play, devised shortly after the book’s publication.

The horrors Great War are seen through the eyes of Tommo Peaceful, an under-age soldier who enlists with his beloved brother Charlie, and whose experiences in the trenches contrast sharply with their Devonshire childhood, where a plane spotted in the sky rises over rooftops instead of plunging to the ground, and figures of authority are to be laughed about rather than feared. Even the death of their father in a forestry accident and the respects paid by his employer is bathed in a warmer light when compared with the devastation of No Man’s Land, where bodies lie unburied, tangled in barbed wire.

Recent RADA graduate Mark Quartley took Tommo through early childhood and first love and then to the trenches of “Wipers”, his innocent disappearing as the fields turn to mud, but his devotion to his family staying strong through to the big push where brotherly love and battlefield experience clash with blind obedience. The play ended with a left-turn from the novel, which I shall not explain for fear of revealing either, clearly rewritten to better suit the one-man performance, but also making for better dramatic impact on the many school groups present who were probably bracing themselves for an ending they thought they knew to expect after reading the book.

While Morpurgo’s other Great War tale, War Horse, continuing to thunder in the West End, with a Broadway run and Spielberg film in production, Private Peaceful demonstrates that even stripped back to one actor and a few sound and lighting effects, the tragedy of war as seen through the eyes of a boy not much older than most of those in the audience can still resonate through words with young people today.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, February 24

Steeling a laugh - Mark Steel review

Mark Steel at The Corn Exchange, Newbury, on Saturday, February 12

FOREVER confused in people’s minds with fellow left-leaning (but far more incendiary) comedian Mark Thomas, Mark Steel came to Newbury for a relatively gentle stroll down the high streets of Britain with his Mark Steel’s In Town tour, based on his BBC Radio 4 series of the same name.

Mainly focussing on Britain’s more beleaguered towns, and inspired by his own allegedly dreary hometown of Swanley in Kent, the show celebrated the humanity and quirks which make every town special, from Walsall’s beloved hippo statue to the residents of Penzance thinking that neighbouring St Ives must be posh “because they’ve got their own dentist”.

Steel had done some research on Newbury prior to his tour, including a whirlwind visit to West Berkshire Museum (“it was about to close when I got there, which only left me 14 minutes to kill after I’d finished looking round”) and reading a booklet on Newbury’s part in the English Civil War (feeding the Parliamentarian army, presumably with local sausages).

Surely with his left-wing opinions he missed a trick in not delving into the history of Greenham Common (the missiles got the briefest of mentions in passing); but I felt that Steel was careful not to alienate those present by exploring local issues which could potentially divide the audience - the bypass only received a mention as “a way to avoid Newbury”.

Anyway, local events had rather come bang up to date with the weekend’s tragic goings-on at Newbury Racecourse: “two dead and one wobbled” as a refreshed audience member summed it up. Indeed, with a few lubricated would-be racegoers in the audience, Steel dealt well with a number of uninvited interactions, appearing quite happy to take the show off-message as and when required.

The locally-skewed material only played a small part in the show, but the backdrop which accompanied the first half, of Steel outside Griffins in Bridge Street (“Home of the Newbury Sausage”) created a friendly vibe which was reflected in the audience, even prior to the show beginning, with conversations arising about the errant “B” in the sign above the butcher's shop: “When did that go missing?” “Longer than I care to remember, mate”. And of course the entire audience was drawn together by the use of Thatcham as the butt of a joke.

Steel’s shows may demonstrate great research and thought, but he also appears fully aware that a little education can go a long way, and sometimes people just want a silly old laugh.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, February 17