Sunday, March 06, 2011

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

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