Saturday, July 30, 2011

Intimate experiences - review of Laura Mugridge, Running On Air, and Stuart Silver, You Look Like Ants

Newbury Comedy Festival: Running On Air, at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on Tuesday, July 12, and You Look Like Ants, at New Greenham Arts, Newbury on Thursday, July 14

PROVING that Newbury Comedy Festival isn’t just about the big names and television faces, two smaller shows in town this week also demonstrated that sometimes comedy doesn’t just have to embrace the big laughs - sometimes it  can also be life-affirming,  heartwarming, thought-provoking and mind-expanding.

Fitting the first of those two descriptions very nicely was Running On Air - not performed in The Corn Exchange itself, but out the front, inside the vintage VW campervan called Joni owned by comedian Laura Mugridge. With an audience capacity of five, the setting takes both the concepts of “intimate” and “audience participation” to a new level, with singing, tape deck control, spice jar percussion and the obligation of someone to take on the role of Mugridge’s husband all required as we cosied up together.

Mugridge’s Edinburgh Fringe First Award-winning tale was heartffelt and true, exploring her ambivalence between life as a touring comedian and the draw of her life at home, with a new husband and the desire to start a family. Touring and performing in her beloved-but-temperamental Joni, she explained, was her compromise, taking part of her home with her on the road - although from her tales of myriad breakdowns (both car and owner) it’s possibly not turned out to be the most stress-free way of solving her dilemma.

Her warm conversational style and the delightfully strange setting made for a memorable experience, although sometimes it was easy to forget it was a performance, and the rhetorical questions weren’t there to be answered. “Have children now!” I wanted to say. “It’s never the right time! Just do it!”. But I didn’t. I knew my place, and that place was to play the swanee whistle to indicate falling temperatures (apparently I do an excellent “sad face”). And anyway, much as the campervan may be loved by Mugridge, her unreliability may mean that she would not be the ideal family getabout. I suspect Mugridge may need a little longer with Joni before she moves on to another kind of baby.

You Look LIke Ants, presented by writer-performer Stuart Silver was a philosophical, poetic performance piece, accompanied by Silver’s own virtuosic playing of the electric ukulele. Intriguing, hypnotic, and wavering throughout between amusing and bizarre, this was a balladic search for the meaning of life through the advice of others, with intertwined storylines featuring the most unlikely of characters, including Richard & Judy, Mark Knopfler and a talking rabbit. I will never listen to Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms again without thinking of Silver’s ukulele and that rabbit.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, July 21, 2011

Invasion of the supersized minibeasts - review of Sarruga, Insectes - A Night Carnival

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Insectes - A Night Carnival, in Newbury town centre on Saturday, July 16

LESS than a week after the “real” Newbury Carnival, the concept was turned on its head on Saturday night as mini beasts became supersized for an eerie and atmospheric crawl through the town centre. The darkening air was filled with hissing smoke, glowing lights and banging tunes, as the crowd screamed with delight and fear as two giant ants, a spider and a praying mantis crept among them as if searching for prey, their spiky legs forever moving as they made their way up Northbrook Street and into the Market Place. 
There was no escape even for those cowering behind, as a tenacious venus flytrap swung over the heads of the crowd, snapping its fearsome jaws close to them.

The parade culminated in the Market Place, with a deadly showdown between the spider and the praying mantis, as slowly the other  insects and plants stopped moving and dimmed their lights. With the cyclists powering the mechanisms hidden from view, and the audience gathering in a more unstructured manner than they had been along the route, it truly looked like the beasts were walking over the heads of the crowd, until finally the praying mantis became the victor. It may have had a little trouble getting over the water bridge, but in the battle between mantis and spider, the mantis had the edge.

Hosted by The Corn Exchange and funded by Greenham Common Trust, Spanish artists Sarruga presented the Insectes carnival with the help of local volunteers who helped to build and cycle the machines. With the rain stopping just in time for the event, the parade was a ray of dark light for the community. With funding cuts for arts projects fast taking hold nationwide, the input of the Greenham Common Trust to make such thrilling and exciting free events happen in Newbury is to be welcomed and applauded. Long may it continue, as the people of West Berkshire wait with anticipation to see what amazing experience will next bring the crowds flooding into the town.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, July 21, 2011

Monday, July 25, 2011

Joly good - review of Dom Joly

Newbury Comedy Festival: Dom Joly at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on Saturday, July 9

I CAN’T say that there’s many live stage shows which end with the audience running screaming from the auditorium (or at least attempting to, until they start to bottleneck and feel a tad self conscious about the screaming). But then, this is a show presented by hidden camera legend Dom Joly, where the unexpected is to be expected.

Ending with a mass audience “reaction” stunt to potentially be used as the trailer for Joly’s planned film War Of The Flea (I suspect we won’t make it into the final cut, although the clip can be voted for at, the evening also featured a rock & roll guitar-smashing experience, clips and stills from Joly’s various television shows and globe-trotting adventures, and, of course, a giant mobile phone.

Joly appears to be a man with a talent in search of a niche - and possibly a television channel. This wasn’t a stand-up show, rather an autobiographical look at his career, starting with the mass cult success of Channel 4’s Trigger Happy TV and its expensive international follow-up World Shut Your Mouth (binned by the BBC when it realised that jetting to Newfoundland for the sole purpose of “frightening an Eskimo” possibly wasn’t the most justifiable outlay of taxpayers’ cash).

He then told some very amusing tales from his Sky series Dom Joly’s Happy Hour, an alcohol-fuelled trip around the world, and briefly reminisced about his appearance in I’m A Celebrity... last year (he came fourth), when he learnt how to keep sane from Shaun Ryder, who directed his fellow “prisoners” to steal gaffer tape and pens from the production crew in order to beat the system, and for which he will forever be known as “the man Stacey Solomon chucked a stone at”.

Rather strangely, the audience were given the opportunity to recreate this moment, but only through the purchase of felt-covered “stones” during the interval at £1 a pop. They were rather nice, and if I had bought one, I would rather have held on to it. Such blatant fund-raising may have see med a little mercenary, but as Joly pointed out, he needed to cover the costs of 70 guitars to be smashed - one for each night of the tour - and noticing a spike in sales at one of their stores, Argos had put the price up.

Joly was born and brought up in war-torn Beirut, and despite now being settled in the Cotswolds, his urge to experience different countries and cultures remains strong. As well as a “serious” career as a travel writer, he recently published a book, Dark Tourist, about some of the world’s more macabre holiday destinations (I bought it afterwards - it’s a good read), resulting in some revealing tales about North Korea and Chernobyl (he had a great sense of deja vu in visiting the nearby ghost town of Pripyat, before realising that the video game shoot-em-up Call Of Duty was based there)

Afterwards, at the book signing, Joly admitted that he was rather ill, and had in fact cancelled the previous two nights’ dates. “I’m not sure how it came across, tonight, but it was great in my head”, he told me. Luckily it was pretty good outside of his head as well. Slightly odd, but different. And there’s nothing wrong with that. 

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, July 14, 2011

Masters of the dark arts - review of Barry & Stuart

Barry and Stuart Live at Arlington Arts, Snelsmore, on Thursday, June 30

TWO cheery and handsome young Scotsmen, Barry Jones and Stuart MacLeod have known each other since their early teens, when they were arch rivals in the Scottish Young Magician of the Year competition. The result is one of those double acts that work so well together that you can’t imagine them ever being parted (unless it was during a sawing-in-half stunt). It is also eerily impossible to remember which one is which, although I tried to seal it into my memory while watching the show. I reckon they played some sort of mind trick on me.

Too rambunctious to be truly spooky, the duo focus on making the dark side of magic a jolly affair, and in the process have made conjuring cool for a new generation (although I suspect their funky haircuts help as well). Championed by none other than Derren Brown, they have reached tellyland prominence through primetime Saturday night BBC1 show The Magicians, and are world-renowned, having won the Best Comedy Illusionists gong at the World Magic Awards in 2009.

Their tricks were a joyful mix of gore, gasps, slapstick and reverential nods to the more intriguing traditions of magic and the so-called supernatural. Particularly mindblowing was a “white noise” video played, in which a spooky face appeared when viewed through the camera on a mobile phone. They have a similar trick available on their BBC Three website at Give it a go - it’s genuinely eerie.

My only niggle would be that it might have been fun to have selected those sitting beyond the front row to be audience participants (although I was relieved to be snugly ensconced out of the danger zone). But the twosome’s magical appearance in the foyer before the audience had filed out of the packed auditorium, and their willingness to oblige with photos and autographs meant that none of their many fans had to miss out. Delightfully silly, this pair proved that magic doesn’t have to be inaccessible to be exciting.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, July 7

Flights of fantasy - review of SLY Theatre, Kes

Kes, by SLY Theatre, at New Greenham Arts on Tuesday, June 28 and Wednesday, June 29

I REMEMBER writing a story for the Newbury Weekly News about the launch of Shining Lights Youth (SLY) Theatre back in 1999, so it’s great to see the company still going strong, resident at New Greenham Arts, and having seen alumni move on to professional work, such as Alec Hopkins, who played the young Severus Snape in the fifth Harry Potter film.

The aim of SLY is to produce drama that challenges both its members and audiences, and it certainly did so with its latest production, based on the classic novel A Kestrel For A Knave by Barry Hines. Transposing the story 15 years forward from its source material to the early 1980s brought in extra elements of tension into the action - rudderless juvenile delinquent Billy Casper’s taking of the fledging kestrel from its nest would have been a criminal act after the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act, while his future looked even more hopeless with the added knowledge that the steady-but-dull employment  lined up for him at the mine would not be a job for life after all.

Keeping the action in Yorkshire was an opportunity for the 10 actors to face the challenge of the regional accent and dialect, which they did so with great dedication. Indeed, the entire performance was an intense experience, as the entire cast were in camera at virtually all times, constantly fluttering the pages of books (possibly copies of A Kestrel For A Knave - I couldn’t tell from my seat) and watching Elliot Laker as Billy intensely, their eyes forever following him as he immersed us in the teenager’s isolated and misunderstood life.

With the story focused around Billy’s relationship with Kes, the young kestrel he tames and trains, another challenge for the company was representing the raptor, which they did with feathered set dressings and lighting which stained the feathers with a flash of red when Billy discovered Kes’ body.

The ensemble cast each took on several roles, creating excellent character pen portraits in their walks and mannerisms, such as Anna Roberts’ prim librarian, Natalie Poernig as both Billy’s careworn mother and his caring teacher Miss Farthing, and Conor Holt as Jud, the jack-the-lad older brother whose immature reaction to a perceived slighting resulted in the destruction of both the bird and Billy’s hope. All involved in SLY can be proud of this stylish, affecting and powerful production, which retained both the bleakness and dark humour of the source text.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Mark Watson, by request - interview

THE good people of Newbury are particularly fortunate to have comedian Mark Watson paying them a visit next week. His current tour schedule has been compiled from “Request Stops” suggested by fans, taking him to towns he has rarely - if ever - visited before, such as Wimborne, Bromsgrove and Chorley.

Newbury, however, is a special case, as Watson himself admits. “I have been to Newbury a few times, including during the comedy festival last year. But that wasn’t a ‘real show’ as I was warming up for Edinburgh, so this will be the real thing. For some of the other stops on the tour I’ve been performing some “greatest hits”, but at The Corn Exchange I’ll try to concentrate on new material, as it’s more likely that people will have seen me before.”

Having become a father last year, understandably some of this new material touches on parenthood and entering his 30s, but Watson is a bit wary of devoting too much of the show to this - “a lot of comedians are doing that at the moment. Other than that, there will be plenty of my general ranting, which is my stock-in-trade, and saying whatever comes into my head. I have material that I  am comfortable with, but I do like to go off on tangents. Some shows are quite chaotic.” 

Watson says that he still finds a joy in performing live, something which has been particularly refreshed by the fact that this tour is taking him to some places where comedians rarely venture. “Sometimes people are gorged on comedy; if they don’t get to see so much the audiences can be really receptive,” he explains.

Much of the freedom to pick and choose material on this current tour arises from the fact that Watson has only planned eight performances at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, rather than hunkering down for the entire three-week slog with an entirely new show. “The stakes are high in Edinburgh, and by the time people come to Newbury Comedy Festival they want their show to be working well. But I don’t have to worry about that, which is liberating.

“I definitely have more control over my career than I did three or four years ago, and I don’t feel I have to take on everything that comes my way. It gives me more time to write, and gives me a better chance of balancing family life with touring . It’s still a challenge though - my wife puts up with a lot.” Watson has stepped back from guesting on television panel shows “as they don’t tend to suit me”, but he recently took on the role of host for a pilot improv show, due to be shown on Dave next month.

With radio in the pipeline and a new novel (his fourth) being written for release next year (he’s also written a non-fiction book about his attempt at “green living”), he isn’t exactly kicking back and relaxing. However, he has given up performing marathon stand-up shows, the longest of which was 36 hours, at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006. “I probably won’t do another one - as the dad of a toddler, my entire life is like that now. It’s physically and emotionally draining, and it puts an immense strain on your loved ones. But I am tempted sometimes to do just one more. That would close the story.”

Mark Watson will be performing a show of normal length when he makes his “Request Stop” at The Corn Exchange during Newbury Comedy Festival on Tuesday, July 5. The festival starts on Monday, July 4 with Russell Kane at New Greenham Arts, and runs until July 16.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, June 30, 2011

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Drawing out the meaning of life - review of Little Howard and the Magic Pencil

LIttle Howard and the Magic Pencil of Life and Death, at The Hexagon, Reading, on Friday, February 5, 2010

As CBBC viewers will know, Little Howard may only be an animated six-year-old, but he’s not frightened of some pretty big questions, asking them regularly in his television series, Little Howard’s Big Question.

So, when experiencing feelings of jealousy towards his human sidekick “Big” Howard Read’s baby son Samson, Little Howard isn’t afraid of asking some of the biggest existential questions of all: Would he be more real if he wasn’t two-dimensional? Why hasn’t he got a nose or ears? Can Big Howard sell Samson?

Little Howard thinks he’s found the answer when Big Howard shows him the Magic Pencil of Life and Death which he was drawn with, but Cartoon Death wants the pencil too, and possibly utilise the eraser at the other end...

Whether entirely two-dimensional, or undertaking coloured glasses-enhanced 3D adventures, Little Howard “live” was just as a believable a character as in his television series, despite being confined by logistics to a giant screen or Big Howard’s laptop. His witty repartee with Big Howard and the audience belied his tender years, and appeared so natural that it was hard to remember it would have all been pre-prepared.

Little Howard may be a 2D character, but his audience interaction was fully-rounded, as he demonstrated his inability to catch a ball (although it could knock him over quite convincingly), and he and Big Howard conducted a game of human Guess Who?. 

George was blown away by the 3D elements of the show, and I’m sure Read and co-animator Martin White would be delighted to hear that their work stands up in the mind of a seven-year-old to that of Avatar. Meanwhile, I particularly enjoyed the songs, including the “strangely soothing” ukulele-backed Unpleasant Lullaby, designed to paralyse any child in their bed through fear for the entire night.

“Even funnier than the Chuckle Brothers” was George’s verdict, and I must admit, I’m really rather excited myself that another two series of Little Howard’s Big Question have been commissioned by the BBC. And I would like Little Howard to know that if Big Howard ever gets too distracted by Samson, he can always come live in my laptop.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, February 11, 2010