Saturday, October 29, 2011

Making friends with the enemy - review of Scamp Theatre, Friend Or Foe

Friend Or Foe, by Scamp Theatre,at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on Thursday, October 13 and Friday, October 14

AFTER meeting “Joey”, the magnificent horse puppet at Highclere Castle’s Heroes at Highclere event on Sunday, I am more inspired than ever to save up the pennies and myself up to the West End to see the London production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. But in the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the plethora of touring productions based on Morpurgo’s many other children’s books, using the excuse that they’re good for George’s cultural education (although on this occasion he was unable to make it, so I took a rather older, hairier stand-in boy along to The Corn Exchange).

Written specifically to fit in with the National Curriculum Key Stage 2 topic of Second World War evacuees, Friend Or Foe tells the story of two London boys evacuated to a Devon farm, who find that they haven’t entirely left the Blitz behind when they spot a German bomber crash landing on the moor near their new home.

On a sharply raked stage (which, it was later revealed in a post-performance actors’ talk, played havoc with their calf muscles in rehearsal) designed to represent, not the expected countryside setting but a bombed house back in London, the boys told the story of their discovery of the surviving German airmen, and the changes it brought about of their views about “the enemy”.

Having worked with a movement director to use the set to its full advantage, including a beautifully-lit near-drowning scene inciting a heart-in-mouth response, the five-strong cast worked incredibly hard to pare down the complex to the elegantly simple. As well as the paring of the novel’s story to a manageable one-act stage play, the three actors playing the adults in the boys’ lives coped excellently with the many quick changes required, not only of costume but also accents (and sometimes language) and characterisation; from a curmudgeonly farmer to a half-starved German pilot, and from a widowed mother to a chain-smoking no-nonsense teacher.

The busy feel to this piece contrasts with the starkness of Scamp Theatre’s one-man production of Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful, but it is nevertheless another engaging production in which the warmth of Morpurgo’s words shines through, and one which works on many levels for young audiences, from the power of the touching story to the questions it elicits about the experiences of children in wartime. 

* First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, October 20, 2011

Stepping out of the shadows - review of Stephen Merchant

Stephen Merchant: Hello Ladies at The Anvil, Basingstoke on Friday, October 14

FOR a extremely tall bloke, Stephen Merchant has spent a long time in the shadow of his ebullient screenwriting partner Ricky Gervais (well, in fact, not so much in the shadow as stood behind him, with his head cropped off by photographers, as in an ignominious shot taken on stage at the Golden Globe Awards). But finally he has chosen to go it alone return to his stand-up comedy roots.

So be it because he doesn’t have to share the profits with “you-know-who” or wishing to forge a career in his own right when Gervais is living it up in Hollywood. Whatever the reason, it turns out that for all the hype of a performer who can book a large venue tour without the traditional stand-up slog of the Edinburgh Fringe and endless club slots, Merchant is a natural funnyman who can hold an audience of hundreds in the palm of his hand and tickle them until they giggle helplessly.

Based around the schtick that he can’t attract a potential wife, despite his top geek credentials (including a treasured Blue Peter badge which gains free entry into all sorts of attractions) and careful ways with money (always attractive in the early throes of romance), Merchant mixed self-deprecation and outrage (being called “Stephen Mitchell” throughout his first national press interview, and used as a landmark by a girl wishing to rendezvous with friends in Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve).

Playing on his gangly awkwardness and boggly-eyed features (and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible; he isn’t an unattractive man) to the max, Merchant’s onstage persona is generally the polar opposite to that of the often-spikey Gervais;  not just physically but in his easy likeability. Sure, there were echoes of Gervais’ stand-up performance when Merchant demonstrated (mock) false modesty in using his BAFTA in place of a baby in his audience-participatory staging of his GCSE Drama script Choices.

However, with much of Gervais’ own person having been developed through his screen characters of David Brent (The Office) and Andy Millman (Extras), both co-written with Merchant, any reflection was likely to come from Merchant’s own style rather than the inspiration of his writing partner.

Merchant’s management certainly know what they’re doing, with a forthcoming release of a tour DVD in time for Christmas, but quite rightly - I left wanting to see much more. Sadly aside from having an aversion to stand-up comedians performing in the arena-size venues that Merchant is more than likely to sell out on his next tour, I fear that his Transatlantic television writing/acting career may mean that such solo shows may not be as regular an occurrence as would be desired. In the meantime, I would be happy to find Merchant in my stocking on Christmas Day... if you see what I mean.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, October 20, 2011

Friday, October 28, 2011

Memories of a master storyteller - review of Anthony Pedley, A Taste of Dahl

A Taste of Dahl, at The Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, on Saturday, October 8

HAVING played the title role of The BFG in a theatre production just a few months after author Roald Dahl’s death, actor Anthony Pedley was inspired to devise a one-man show to inspire in children a love of Dahl’s wider work, and in turn, a love of reading.

Transforming himself by way of a cardigan into the great man himself, Pedley performed the entire show using only words written or spoken by Dahl, to blend in a little of his life story, his most famous children’s books (identified by shout-outs from the audience), and some of his lesser known work, such as those published posthumously, demonstrating that even ardent Dahl fans will often have more to explore.

Jumping from the elderly Dahl into his childhood self, trembling as he anticipate a caning from his headmaster, Pedley explained how the author never lost his childhood sense of fun, holding on to a love of cheekiness and  combining it with a moral sense of comeuppance and a touch of the grotesque inspired by the folklore stories told to him by his Norwegian grandmother.

And so, we learnt about The Gremlins, Dahl’s first published book (based on his screenplay for an aborted Disney film - no, not THAT Gremlins!), and his last children’s book for 18 years, until James and the Giant Peach in 1961. In between, he wrote some of his dark, dark adult short story collections, touched upon in the show, obviously not in too much detail, but to hint that there was a world beyond when the young readers were older and ready.

However, he did read an excerpt from The Swan, one of the short stories in The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar, his collection for older children, which certainly traumatised me as a child, reading it at a younger age than that for which it was intended. Parents with avid readers should approach with caution. However, including it (not in its entirety) in a show which mainly focussed on fun emphasised Pedley’s point about the wide scope of Dahl’s work, and how a love of his stories can indeed inspire a lifetime of reading.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, October 13, 2011

I love Cox - review of Chris Cox

Chris Cox: Fatal Distraction, at New Greenham Arts on Friday, October 7

I’M a sucker for a freebie, but I’d like to make it clear that the free “I Love Cox” button badge given to me will not be influencing this review. They were given out to the entire audience, and it would have been churlish to refuse. Anyway, I don’t think us Newbury Weekly News reviews have a “declared interests” obligation - if we did, I would also have to admit that my sister was one of the audience members selected to participate in the show. Chris Cox did indeed read her mind magnificently - but then, I consider her particular easy to read. I’ve been able to do it for years.

Oh yes, and I got a hug from Cox after the show. But in no way does a hug from a handsome young man implant in me the urge to write a positive review. Promise. The thoughts below are all my own... I think.

“A mind reader who can’t read minds” (also a BBC Radio 1 producer - and still in his 20s), Cox’s show had a lovely conceit, built around the poignant tale of a girlfriend found by fate and lost by harsh reality, with many of his tricks allowing audience members to build up a picture of his dream girl as his performance progressed. Often items from a cluttered bookcase were used in the act - but I’m sure that some of them were there to influence our train of thoughts during the show, and possibly into the future (since Friday I have had an unexplainable urge to see the RSC production of Roald Dahl’s Matilda).

The problem with writing about magic-style acts early on in their tour, particularly with local-ish dates to come (Swindon Arts Centre on November 12 and the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot on November 25) is that revealing too much about the performance could spoil things for readers spurred on by a glowing review to book tickets. So to a certain extent, you’ll have to trust me on this. Cox is fab. Slick, charismatic, confident and extremely likeable. Think about what Derren Brown might do if he had a smaller stage and a broken heart.

Oh yes, I think I can safely mention that prior to the show Cox had memorised last week’s edition of the Newbury Weekly News in its entirety, proved by audience members calling out page numbers. I’m not sure even our illustrious editor would be able to pull that one off (go on Brien, tell us what’s on page 44).

I for one will be wearing my “I Love Cox” badge with pride, and it is entirely my own choice to do so. I think.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thursday, October 27, 2011

So good, I bought the T-shirt - review of Frisky and Mannish


Frisky and Mannish: Popcentre Plus at New Greenham Arts, on Thursday, October 6

I HAVE a confession about Frisky and Mannish: after seeing them perform on BBC Three’s Edinburgh Fringe showcase, I dismissed them as “a bit pants” and knowing that their Newbury date was one of several I was reviewing that week, I was ready to jack in my ticket. But then, friends and family started raving about having heard them on the radio, so I thought I might as well tag along and see who was right - me, or four of my nearest and dearest.

Reader, I loved them so much, I bought the T-shirt. Literally. Got it signed on the back as well. Having spoken to the mum of another participant in the BBC Three showcase (I am now of an age where I don’t know the bright young things, but I do know their parents), it appears that Frisky and Mannish weren’t the only act who struggled to wow as they should without the bangs and whizzes of their own production arena.

That’s not to say that this comedic musical duo are nothing without their effects buttons, as Frisky & Mannish - aka Oxford University graduates Laura Corcoran and Matthew Floyd Jones  - are seriously talented singers and performers. It is surprising to learn after the show that neither have much formal training in the performing arts arena. Corcoran in particular is a virtuoso vocalist who can switch her powerful voice between pastiches of Madonna (in her many incarnations), Adele and Ellie Golding  among others, with graceful ease.

The Popcentre Plus concept of the Frisky and Mannish show was a workshop for would-be popstars, with education - the “revelations” that Rhianna’s Rude Boy was written by the Bee Gees and that Florence & the Machine’s songs are recycled late 90s pop; enlightenment - that any song can fit the grime genre (think N-Dubz), even The Carpenters’ On Top Of The World; and dire warnings of “Good Girl[s] Gone Bad”, those teeny boppers who grow up to find their sexy side.

There was great fun to be had in the audience participation as we were divided into the Elvis Presleys (singers), Britneys (dancers), Razorlights (great hair), Biebers (no discernible talent) and Greg (so fabulous, only one name needed). This culminated in the formation of a new boyband on stage, given the moniker The Other Direction, and obliged to perform a Take That standard to the best of their abilities.

Even the song that had been my BBC Three bugbear - a version of Girls Aloud’s Sound of the Underground, with lyrics changed to the words of nursery rhymes (“the wheels on the bus go round and round”) worked fabulously in the context of the show. With their performance of their Kate Bush/ Kate Nash mash-up during the Fringe coverage leading me to comment “that would have been so funny five years ago”, I was concerned that with the fast pace of pop music, some of their act would have already dated. As it turns out, it was me who couldn’t always keep up with them; having to check with my younger sister who a certain song belonged to (it was Jessie J) proved that.

With their fingers on the musical pulse of the moment, Frisky and Mannish turn the glitzy world of throwaway pop into something to be cherished through pastiche, satire, and lots of laughs. They have already sold out their two dates at Reading’s South Street later this month, but there are still a very few tickets left for Swindon Arts Centre on December 20. And remember - if you have great hair, you too can be a chart topper. Just ask the boys from Razorlight.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Boxing clever - review of Compagnie Luc Amoros, Page Blanche

Page Blanche, presented by Compagnie Luc Amoros, in Newbury Market Place, on Saturday, October 1

IT may in part have been the unexpectedly balmy weather that attracted people in their masses to the Market Place on Saturday evening; but it is becoming increasingly common knowledge that The Corn Exchange’s Outdoor Arts Programme (funded by Greenham Common Trust) are free events not to be missed if at all possible.

Page Blanche involved a high scaffold installation divided into nine boxes, with six continental European artists creating a series of powerful, thought provoking, often intricate pieces of artwork and graffitied prose on plastic sheeting, using paint, etching and printing, only to destroy each piece within seconds, leaving a “blank page on which to start again”; questioning the place of art in the world, and whether it has to be permanent to be important. The painted sheets were in turn ripped off their perspex canvas and flung down to the ground, gathering in a colourful pile, as the artists themselves - five women and one man - became daubed in the paint as the hour progressed.

As they worked with intensity and urgency, the six artists chanted, danced, drummed and sang, accompanied by a double bassist, using live looping the music and singing to create an aural tapestry as complex as the creations appearing on the canvas. Indeed, this may have been fast art, but it was far from simple; there were many “can you tell what it is yet?” moments as each artist worked on different levels of the scaffold to reveal the cohesive whole on an epic scale.

Much of the artwork and its presentation had a point to make about various atrocities through human history, although the subtlety and cleverness of some of the images - a “carved” mandala depicting the wiping out of an Orinoquian tribe, where the weapons were the last part to appear - was not always reflected by the bluntness of the words, both written and oral. Some interesting points were made, but to me, comparing taking children to see celebratory fireworks to the horror of the atomic bomb seemed a little harsh.

Among the colourful paintings and stark black-and-white etchings, representations of famous artwork were sometimes created. Van Gogh’s self-portrait appeared, and the final giant depiction was reminiscent of Gauguin’s paintings of the women of Tahiti. Hypnotic and energetic, this was a rich and exhilarating performance that will leave those fleeting images imprinted in the memory for a long time.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, October 6, 2011

I fought the Law... and the Law won - review of Tony Law

Tony Law at New Greenham Arts, on Thursday, September 22

I SAW the Marmite effect in action at Tony Law’s show last Thursday - I loved him, my plus-one hated him, and we could see the rest of the audience split among similar lines into the laughs and laugh-nots.

Well, “hated” is too strong a word, as Law’s surreal deconstruction of the craft of comedy didn’t elicit the barely-concealed anger with which my companion (a different chap) responded to a performance by Wil Hodgson during the Newbury Comedy Festival a few years ago. But barely a smile was raised from this particular guest last week, while I was more than happy to relax and enjoy the magical mystery tour of Law’s mindwarping musings.

Law dresses like a 19th century polar explorer (the only surviving one, he propounded, to be doing stand up comedy; the others having formed the bands Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons), sounds like a lumberjack (he is indeed, Canadian), and picks apart his own act using the schtick that he isn’t a terribly skilled comedian, when actually he quite clearly is as savvy as they come.

Law’s themes are fairly random, although nature pop up in some of its strangest forms throughout the show - who would win a fight between a shark and a bear (you have to paint the shark as a salmon to get the bought started), adopting a prostitute panda, and how trees are great gossips. His self-styling as a “dangerous” comedian was applied with a reasonable dose of irony, but his act certainly never fell below the bar of “mild peril”. Law appeared fully aware that his performance was likely to divide his audience, a risk raised exponentially by the smallish turn-out for his Newbury gig. This didn’t seem to worry him - in fact, I rather suspect that he revels in such diverse reactions.

I suppose some of the appeal (for those, like me, that do laugh at him) is that audience members can feel awfully smug and clever if they “get” him, over those that don’t. Whereas those that don’t laugh are in fact more confident in their own intelligence, and therefore don’t need the validation. I don’t care - I’m quite happy to be made to feel clever, so Law’s act works for me, and so yah-boo to those erudite brainy types who can rise above such ingenious verbal trickery.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, September 29, 2011


Dog and Bone - interview with magician Robert Bone

ROBERT Bone isn’t a magician he is a demonstrator of extra-sensory curiosities, so don’t expect him to pull a rabbit out of a hat - unless it’s a virtual bunny, and the hat is a figment of your imagination. By Catriona Reeves.

I KNOW that Robert Bone won’t mind being compared to master mentalist Derren Brown. After all, the quote on his poster and flyers is from the great man himself: “What a lovely chap”. Robert’s use of it is rather tongue-in-cheek - “He’s never seen me perform; we just had a chat at the stage door after one of his shows. But that was what he said to me, and it was too good an opportunity not to use it in my publicity!”

Derren, as always of course, is entirely right: Robert is indeed a lovely chap, both in his dapper three-piece stage suit, and in mufti as he chats about his new project, branching out from the performance of close-up magic at social functions with his first full-length stage show, which he performed for this first time to an audience at New Greenham Arts in early September.

Robert describes the process of preparing and rehearsing for the show as “like practising tightrope walking on a piece of rope lying on the ground, then suddenly trying to do it up in the air”.

“You have no idea who’s coming up on the stage, and the entire second half of the show involved lots of unpredictables, much of which I had never done before”. Not everything went exactly to plan, but overall the big picture came together.”

His preparation involved memorising the contents of books using image mnemonics, and learning to slow his pulse dramatically - verified during the show by a midwife in the audience.

As a self-styled “Demonstrator of Extra-Sensory Curiosities” - a moniker he took on two years ago to differentiate himself from more traditional conjurors - Robert’s performance is about much more than sleight of hand, and he will never use pure, simple trickery when a feat of memory, psychological reading and hypnotic suggestion will provide more gasp-inducing results.

“In rehearsals I had a ‘drop-everything’ idea which I had to include in the show, involving getting a volunteer to focus on a memory to get him in the right mood, then using Scrabble tiles to build up a picture. This replaced my original plan to use a ouija board, which could have been amazing, or fallen completely flat.”

Originally from the New Forest but now living in Brimpton, Robert’s interest in magic started 10 years ago when working as a mortgage advisor. Bored while on a residential training course, he began teaching himself card tricks. In 2006 he turned professional, rebranding himself in 2009 to shake off the magician’s usual dickie bow get-up - “although I only once got mistaken for the wine waiter” - and to focus more on his psychological skills, which had fascinated him since the earlier series of Big Brother, when psychologists used to decipher the housemates’ behaviour and body language.

Although Robert performs under his own name, it was the acquisition of a handmade three-piece suit that helped create his performing persona - affable and charming, yet also slightly quirky. “My girlfriend say it’s weird, that I do become someone else. It’s still me - but it’s a different part of me.

“I want to be remembered and talked about, whether it’s for going up to three people at the bar at a wedding, or on stage in front of 150 people. It’s not just about doing tricks, it’s about making an impact. It’s like what David Blaine did with his street magic - that was as much about his audiences’ reaction as the tricks themselves.”

Despite Robert’s unusual approach, he has the greatest respect for the traditions and history of magic, citing David Nixon and Paul Daniels as heroes if not direct influences. He also loves the work of Penn & Teller, and recommends Dynamo, who recently had a series on digital television channel Watch as the next big thing.

“My ambition is to get my own television series,” confesses Robert, whose television debut was live on BBC Three in 2008, as an act on a live talent show called Upstaged, which saw him perform for eight hours in a glass box in Millennium Square, Bristol. “It was an experience,” he laughs. “I had one day’s notice to prepare enough material, and it was February, so there were no passers-by!” He is hoping that his latest stint in front of the camera will lead to more success, as his recent Greenham show was filmed by a professional crew for an extended showreel and potential television pilot. 

“Magic goes through peaks and troughs in terms of mainstream popularity, and it’s back on prime time right now. I think the trend will continue more towards the psychological stuff - mind reading and body language. Hopefully that will mean that there’s a place for me on TV!”

* To find out more about Robert Bone or to contact him, please send him a message through thought waves, or alternatively visit

  • First published in Out & About magazine, September  2011

I can see for Mills and Mills... - review of Chris Mills

Chris Mills at Ace Space, Newbury on Friday, September 16

COMMUNITY arts venue Ace Space scored its first international coup on Friday, with a performance by American singer-songwriter Chris Mills - it was just a pity that the audience that turned up to see him and local alt-country band Case Hardin was rather select.

While Ace Space’s monthly Unplugged ‘open mike’ nights are regularly bursting at the rafters, music lovers seem rather more reluctant to take a punt on professional acts, even when the entrance fee is only a couple of pounds more.

Luckily Mills didn’t seem at all perturbed by the select turn-out - the previous night had seen him perform a semi-impromtu gig at a fan’s request in the Scottish town of Newton Stewart, where the venue had been a “information booth”, so after a nine-hour drive down to Newbury, he was entirely laid back about playing “a bingo hall in Newbury” (a phrase received with the humour it was intended).

Reminiscent of an American Badly Drawn Boy - he’s got the beard and the guitar, if not the woolly hat -  Mills performs songs of love and longing with power and passion that should be filling venues far larger than Ace Space with ease. His music might be described as “urban country” - the lilt and themes of Nashville are there, but with an edgier tinge which reflects Mills’ roots in bluesy Chicago,  and his current hometown of Brooklyn.

Particularly powerful was Napkin In A Wine Glass, a tale of domestic violence told from the point of view of the abuser, which brought a hush to the entire room, and contrasted with the unbearable romance of In The Time Of Cholera, a song about lost loves reunited in old age, inspired by Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novel - described by Mills with a smile as “a really disgusting book about old people having sex”.

It may have bee a small crowd for the final night of his short UK tour, but Mills jetted back to the USA on Saturday having converted a good percentage of them into fans, clutching signed copies of his retrospective compilation CD Heavy Years 2000-2010 as they went away, mostly likely to play them many, many times.  

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, September 22, 2011