Saturday, July 28, 2012

Five stars for Sayle - review of Alexei Sayle

Newbury Comedy Festival: Alexei Sayle - Stalin Ate My Homework, at The Corn Exchange, Newbury, on Saturday, July 14

ALEXEI Sayle - self-styled “fat b*****d*, inventor (pretty much) of alternative comedy, pithy celebrity insulter extraordinaire, and now more or less a full-time author with five published novels, and motoring correspondent (I didn’t see that one coming, despite his 1984 hit ‘Ullo John! Gotta New Motor?).

It was this writer guise that brought Sayle to be standing at a lectern in The Corn Exchange, reading mainly from the memoir of his odd upbringing by his Communist Jewish parents  in Liverpool. Mr and Mrs Sayle’s beliefs led to some peculiar child-raising decisions - to make up for the fact that they refused to let young Alexei watch Bambi with his classmates (in addition to their dislike of Communist witch hunt supporter Walt Disney, they argued that it may be too upsetting) they took him to a screening of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, “with its scenes of ritualistic child sacrifice”. It was then that Sayle realised that he wasn’t quite the same as other children.

Despite the fact that Sayle hadn’t performed stand-up for 16 years until a slight return in recent months, you can’t put a natural comedian down, and his innate wit came into its own as he fielded questions from the audience with a comfortable candidity about his life, career and the many celebrities he has insulted over the years. Sayle admitted that as he had grown older, he had become more aware of the feelings of others, but still appears genuinely baffled that certain people have long-held grudges arising from his comments about them, most of which were made, at least in part, for comic effect.

While Sayle says that he is keen not to return to old ground career-wise, his tales of the earliest days of alternative comedy (“it could be brilliant, it could be terrible, but it was always exciting - Keith Allen once threw darts at the audience”) and thoughts on the modern stand-up scene (“they’ll talk about all this intimate stuff, but as soon as politics is mentioned, there’s tension in the room - it’s like politics is the new taboo”)  suggests that a  full stand-up tour would be extremely interesting indeed.

But that’s not to say that a book reading is second-best to a stand-up show, because it reflects who Sayle is now, and being as his career has developed so organically via “creating an entirely new art form as the only way of making myself employable”, I get the feeling that the next step, whatever it is, is something that can’t be forced. 

* Chatting with Sayle after the show (well, I had to buy the book), he mentioned that he had never had a five star review. I explained that the Newbury Weekly News’ arts pages don’t have a starring system - but Alexei, just for you: I give it five stars.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, July 19, 2012

A teensy bit tame - review of Seann Walsh and Josh Widdicombe

Newbury Comedy Festival: Seann Walsh - Seann To Be Wild, and Josh Widdicombe - Further Adventures Of... at New Greenham Arts on Thursday, July 10

I’VE had Seann Walsh on my to-do list for quite a while, but I can’t quite remember why - I probably saw him on a television panel show and was charmed by his easy wit and lovely hair.

But there was something ever so slightly “meh” about the preview of his Edinburgh Fringe show, Seann To Be Wild, at New Greenham Arts last Thursday. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it for a couple of days - it was a reasonably slick performance (taking into account that it was a show in-preparation), there was definitely some funny stuff in there and the material fitted well with the theme (Walsh’s love of alcohol and exploits while drinking).

And then, while watching Alexei Sayle’s book reading at The Corn Exchange on Saturday, a comment made by Sayle about today’s stand-up scene made perfect sense. Preparing for a return to stand-up after a 16 year hiatus, the godfather of alternative comedy immersed himself in the current comedy scene, and concluded that while stand-up comics of today are prepared to reveal all sorts of intimate information about themselves, today’s taboo subject seems to be politics. Sayle’s opinion is that the 21st century UK comedy scene’s world view is a generally nihilistic one, with few comics delving deeper than a Mock The Week level of lampooning of the state of affairs.

And so it was with Walsh - and, to a certain extent, Josh Widdicombe as well, whose material, about the little annoyances and confusions of life (the backstories to boardgames for example) was wider ranging, and so hit more targets than Walsh’s drinking tales, but it just wasn’t that memorable. I am aware that one issue with preparing an Edinburgh show is that the performers have to submit their show title, and even the blurb about it, months before the event, and thus before they have even written it, meaning that their material has to then be tailored to the title, which is probably not going to be an approach that works well for everyone.

I don’t mean to come across as damning here; both Walsh and Widdicombe are very able comics, with the sort of able humour which works excellently on television shows and a confidence in their ability which could see them go far. Theirs is the sort of safe-but-funny comedy which goes down well on a wide scale, and I wouldn’t be surprised if either or both of them make it as big as the likes of Russell Howard and Michael MacIntyre. Nothing to set the world on fire; but two secure pairs of hands.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, July 19, 2012

Darby winner - review of Rhys Darby

Rhys Darby: This Way To The Spaceship, at The Anvil, Basingstoke on Tuesday, July 10

I WAS a little bit naughty last Tuesday - slap bang in the middle of the Newbury Comedy Festival, on the night I had the pick of John Shuttleworth at New Greenham Arts, Daniel Simonsen and Dr Brown at Arlington Arts and the You Must Be Joking final at The Corn Exchange,I skipped town altogether and snuck off to Basingstoke to see Rhys Darby (aka Rhysiebabes, as I will always call him). I know, it was treacherous of me, but the opportunity to see a Hollywood actor and the man behind a cult comedy character (as Flight of the Conchords’ Murray Hewitt) in action was irresistible. And I’m a sucker for the Kiwi accent.

I had no regrets about my decision; Rhys Darby’s show - based on his book of the same name - was delightful. A constructed piece of theatrical performance rather than pure stand-up, the show looked back at a number of crucial incidents in Murray’s early life which may - or, may not - have led to him being one of the chosen ones to be evacuated into space as a human worth saving when the world ends. This construct wasn’t terribly well explained at the beginning of the show, but no particular matter - it wasn’t Brecht, so I suspect most audience members who hadn’t read any pre-show blurb picked up the general gist pretty quickly.

The show was introduced by Darby in character as Bill Napier, a Kiwi wildlife ranger (and Darby’s alleged security guard), bearing an uncanny resemblance in appearance and tone to Home & Away’s Alf Stewart, whose powerful “tree of life” salute is bound to be a hit among the kids in the know by the end of the year. Napier was a lovely character, and I would have been quite happy for him to stay on (although I presume that providing your own warm-up must have some downsides for a performer), as “proper” support act, fellow Kiwi Jamie Bowen, was a surprisingly fast talker for a Kiwi (who I always thought to be laid-back in dictation), meaning that some of his jokes and ukulele -backed lyrics were rather swallowed up in The Anvil’s auditorium.

Back as “himself”, Darby launched into the space-set look back on key moments in his life as a socially awkward child and teenager - basically a showcase for his physical comedy, sound effects, mime and and dance skills. I really must read his book to see how he manages to tell the same story in print. The moral of the story was the rather sweet (if not entirely printable) motto: “Keep being yourself, and eventually you’ll find someone who digs your s**t”. Bless. What a potty-mouthed darling Rhysiebabes is.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Peeking into the box of tricks - review of Barry & Stuart : Show & Tell

Newbury Comedy Festival: Barry & Stuart - Show & Tell, at The Corn Exchange on Friday, July 6, 2012
SHORTLY after returning home from Barry & Stuart kicking off the Newbury Comedy Festival with their magic show at The Corn Exchange on Friday, I received a message from local magician Robert Bone, saying “Now you know how to do it all, I guess I’ll have some competition...”

In fact, the Scottish duo’s inspired schtick of revealing the secrets behind their trickery in the second half of the show gave me an increased respect for magicians’ mastery. Far from it all being about sleight of hand and quick wins, the amount of thought, time, inspiration and sheer effort which goes into the creation and perfection of each trick puts it even further out of the reach of us Muggles, and brings in an extra element of wonder and amazement.

Marginally less gory than some of Barry Jones & Stuart MacLeod’s previous shows (there was still a fair amount of fake blood being thrown around, though), the emphasis was firmly on demonstrating - and then revealing the secrets behind - some of the pair’s most ingenious tricks, one of which had taken them six years to prepare for performance. So it was less about the smoke and mirrors, and more about secreted technology, clever use of chemistry, magnificent memory techniques, and an au faitness with the workings of social media.

The explanations didn’t reduce the tricks themselves to a let-down, as there were none that I for one could have second-guessed (I’m sure that Robert Bone could have a good go, but I’m looking forward to testing him on that). OK, there was one exception - a feat of memory by Jones had a perfectly reasonable explanation (he used the devastating power of... his brain), but was no less impressive for it.

The “reveals” also showed how well Jones and MacLeod work as a double act; while Jones’ particular strength is his memory feat, MacLeod’s is his nimble finger work, making short shrift of any sleight of hand required. It makes for an excellent, fun and very entertaining pairing, and despite their statement at the beginning of the show that “tonight, we are going to be ending our careers”, I doubt  that will be happening for many years to come.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hard at it - interview with Adam Kotz from Case Hardin

AN acclaimed British alt country band with extensive local roots, Case Hardin are playing ACE Space in Newbury on Friday, July 20. CATRIONA REEVES spoke to band member, Newbury resident, actor, musician and ACE Space chairman ADAM KOTZ about the band and his many other hats.

CATRIONA REEVES: Case Hardin are definitely making waves on the alt country scene, with your latest album Every Dirty Mirror receiving excellent reviews and national BBC radio airplay. How would you describe the band’s sound?

ADAM KOTZ: The band was formed by Pete Gow - who until recently lived in Thatcham - who writes songs that echo the best of the American alt country scene, and artists like Springsteen and Steve Earle, but mixes it all up with a highly original British take.

We’ve played in the current line-up [Pete, Adam, Tim Emery, Andy Bastow and Jim Maving] for more than three years now, and we seem to able to take on different styles from stomping rock to ballads and story songs - as we hope the album shows.

CR: Pete’s job as a TV journalist has taken him to war zones in Iraq and Libya in recent years. Do his songs relate to these experiences?

AK: Some do directly, others more obliquely; but he also writes beautifully about lost love and hard drinking.

CR: What is your role in the band?

AK: Well, I weave my mandolin and banjo through the tunes, as well as singing backing and some lead vocals.

CR: Have you always combined being an actor with making music?

AK: Not always. I’ve played on and off in bands in between acting jobs but it’s particularly great when the two combine. For example, I started playing mandolin while playing the music teacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the National Theatre in the ’90s. I’ve sung and rocked my way through a fair few theatre and TV shows as well, and written music as well – I even wrote a TV theme song back in the ’80s! My first job was the TV play Oi For England, about a skinhead band.

CR: You’ve done a lot of screen work, haven’t you?
AK: I’ve done a lot of theatre too, particularly at the National and with Cheek By Jowl, and I’d love to do more, I miss it, but it’s harder to fit in with family life.

The most well known films are probably The Last King of Scotland [he played Gillian Anderson’s husband - or, as Adam puts it, “I think you’ll find she played my wife”] and Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching, and, yes, I’ve done quite a bit of TV too.

As it happens, I’ve just finished being in Henry IV Pt 2 in the new BBC Shakespeare Hollow Crown season  - that was great, swords, horses and lots of shouting. I play Lord Hastings, a rebel who gets his comeuppance.

That was followed by a lovely one-off play for CBBC and a spy drama for Channel 4, so the variety continues.

CR: I’ve noticed that if you turn up in a murder mystery, it inevitably means that you will turn out to be the murderer or a victim - or, on one occasion, both...

AK: Sometimes I am a bright red herring, and I have had my moments as a law enforcer. In Touching Evil I kicked in doors and arrested people - at least until I went off the rails and killed a few people. OK, you may have a point!

CR: So where does ACE Space fit in to all this?

AK: I knew the old RAFA Hall in St Nicholas Road from hiring it myself, and found out it was going to close down. Luckily, the idea to save it drew in a terrific bunch of local volunteers, and we’ve improved it and kept it running as part-village hall, part-arts workshop ever since. We have had great backing from Greenham Common Trust, and donations along the way from Sovereign, MicroFocus, Newbury Town and West Berkshire councils among others.

Especially, we have had amazing support from the many local people who hire the place, come to our events and tell us they like what we are doing. Have a look at – we are always happy to welcome new people.

CR: Who else is involved in the gig?

AK: We’ve got support from Des Simmons and the Hired Hands. Des is a great local musician with a great band. Sticks and Strings’ Rick Green is opening the show, and is also well known in these parts. All of us play original music with real heart.

For ACE Space, it is the last event before our summer lay-off after a busy year so we hope people will come to help us celebrate that and enjoy a great night of live music.

Ticket for Case Hardin at ACE Space on Friday, July 20, are £5 in advance (£6 on the door) from Hogan Music in Craven Road and Jacqui’s in Blenheim Road, or call 07905 590 214 to reserve. Doors open at 7.30pm.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, July 12, 2012

Fingers of fun - interview with Stuart MacLeod (magicians Barry & Stuart)

SPRIGHTLY Scottish magicians Barry & Stuart, the hosts of the BBC show The Magicians, are returning to Newbury for a date at The Corn Exchange during Newbury Comedy Festival, with a show that would probably get them kicked out of the Magic Circle... if they were members.

STUART MACLEOD explained to CATRIONA REEVES why they are breaking down the fourth wall and letting the audience peek behind their brand of dark and gory magic.

CATRIONA REEVES: You’re bringing your Show & Tell to Newbury Comedy Festival - what’s the idea behind it?

STUART MACLEOD: In the first half of the show, we perform a variety of our favourite tricks and some new ones that we’ve been working on over the past year. Then, after the interval, we reveal exactly how we’ve done each trick. The audience have a choice to stay, or leave if they don’t want to know the secrets behind it.

CR: Have many audience members chosen not to stay for the second half?

SM: We don’t think there’s been many, but we have had comments from various house managers that a few people have left, saying that they’ve enjoyed what they’ve seen, but they don’t want to have the mystery spoilt. There’s often a childlike wonder and astonishment about magic, and not everyone wants to lose that.

It was a brave, and probably stupid decision to go ahead with the show, and it was a tough one to write, but how magic works is fascinating, and we wanted to let people in on the secret.

CR: How is the show going down with other magicians?

SM: A lot are really annoyed - many think that the secrets shouldn’t be revealed, so we’ve had a lot of emails. The Magic Circle has a rule that the secrets of magic shouldn’t be revealed, but we’re not members, so they can’t kick us out.

CR: Does doing the show this way present more challenges than usual?

SM: Actually, it means that if something goes wrong with a trick and we have to improvise, it means that in the second half we can explain what happened and how we dealt with it.

The hardest thing was deciding what tricks to include. There are some really great tricks in there, such as turning water into wine. It took us six years to come up with that, and we performed it on television in front of 6m people, so we were a bit reluctant to give that secret away.

On the other hand, the first half ends with an excellent new trick which we’re really pleased with, and again we had a dilemma about revealing that one.

Basically, we came up with a set of rules that we wanted to genuinely show exactly what was going on, and then there was a lot of cajoling of each other to put a really good range of stuff in there.

CR: It sounds like you should be writing a book on the back of this...

SM: There’s a lot of stuff in the show involving mobile phones and suchlike, so we’ve decided that it would work better on the internet than in the book, so we’re currently working on a website, which is where this should all end up.

We’re also working on a couple of TV  pilots at the moment - we’re not going to Edinburgh this year, because we’re devoting time to them.

CR: You and Barry (Jones) are rather like the Ant & Dec of the magic world - do you think you’ll ever work separately, or are you better together?

SM: We’ve been working together for just over 10 years, and we’ve discovered that there’s something about our writing process that means we need each other. We’re two cogs in a wheel that work best together, and we spark off each other. I don’t think we’ll ever work apart.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sunday, July 08, 2012

John's Final Footsteps - review of The Berkshire Giant

Photograph copyright: Farrows Creative. For more photos from the event, please visit

The Berkshire Giant: John’s Final Footsteps, in Newbury town centre, on Saturday, June 23

THE town had been buzzing all week with the story of John Ever Afraid, with whispers of strange happenings in Aldworth and on Snelsmore Common spreading like wildfire, exacerbated by announcements from milk floats and the distribution of news pamphlets announcing his coming.

And so, on Saturday evening, as darkness fell, a large crowd braved the drizzle to line Northbrook Street to greet the fabled giant, hidden in the walls of Aldworth Church for hundreds of years before finally arising and trekking the 10 miles to Newbury to face his destiny.

His arrival was heralded by a doom-tinged rock & roll band atop a bus, flanked by the devil’s acolytes, stilted skeletal crows who pranced and poked at the crowd as they led the procession through the town and into the Market Place, where the music of a devilish mardi gras band welcomed John himself.

And what a darling John turned out to be. An ungainly figure, with the most soulful blinking blue eyes, he was not to be feared but was himself as timid as a kitten, as he prepared to face his destiny with the devil.

His supporters tried to fight off the acolytes but without success, and John was bowed by his fear, his head in his hands. But through the crowd came the spirit creatures of the forest, - a stag, bear, hare and horse - to save John, festooning him with colour, and bestowing him with antlers of his own.

As John rose back up to the cheers of the crowd, lanterns and fireworks lit up the sky, and a message appeared on the bank building behind him: “I am not afraid anymore”.

Visually stunning, moving, strange and wonderful, this was the culmination of The Corn Exchange’s first large-scale outdoor arts project produced in-house from scratch by creative producer Simon Chatterton, with input from Irish outdoor theatre company Macnas and a host of local volunteers.

The most ambitious project so far in the theatre’s two-year Arts Council-funded outdoor events programme, with additional funding from Greenham Common Trust and West Berkshire Council, it is really quite stunning that a community as outwardly sensible as West Berkshire can come up with something as wonderfully outlandish and beautiful as this.

I don’t know about you, but I rather like the fact that West Berkshire is a little bit weird these days. It rather suits us.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Darby day - interview with Rhys Darby

NEW ZEALANDERS are officially easy-going - it was confirmed in an academic study last year - but I was pushing the laid back nature of a nation, when owing a series of “hilarious” phone-related issues, I was half an hour late in ringing Kiwi comedian Rhys Darby in his Los Angeles hotel room to chat to him about his forthcoming UK tour.

Fortunately, Darby did his country proud, and did not emit a single grump about my tardiness (oh, and apologies to the lady in Newbury whom I unintentionally phoned four times in my attempts to call California. I did wonder why a swanky LA hotel had a receptionist with a West Berkshire accent).  

I’’ve always been a sucker for a Kiwi accent (blame Neil Finn from Crowded House. No, really. In his younger days, he was hot. Trust me.), and as Darby didn’t seem to mind me calling him “Rhysybabes”, as befits anyone with the first name “Rhys”, my fluster soon passed, and much relaxed chat ensued. Well, 15 minutes’ worth of relaxed chat, anyway. I was ringing from my in-laws’ landline, so I had to watch the clock.

And so, with the time ticking away at premium international rate, I got on with the questions...

CATRIONA REEVES: The show you’re about to tour in the UK is called This Way To The Spaceship - and you’ve written a book with the same title as well. What’s all that about, then?

RHYS DARBY: The idea is that when Armageddon arrives, which it’s going to at the end of 2012, the superpowers have got spaceships ready with an invite list of those who will be allowed on board. Naturally, as I’m currently making waves in Hollywood, I’ll be on the list.

But I don’t want it to just be me, I want others to make it on board as well, so This Way To The Spaceship is basically my advice on how to open a few doors at parties, finding the right doors in the first place, fashion tips, conversation advice; how to work your way in with the right people and achieve your dreams.

The book is on the same theme, so the live show is basically the book interpreted through the mediums of physical stand-up, storytelling and dance.

The book has been published in Australia and New Zealand, but at the moment there’s no UK distributor. I’ll be bringing some copies with me though, for people to buy at the show. It kinds of puts a bit of mystique around the book - you’ve got to see the show to buy the book.

CR: Maybe you should give a free copy of the book to each audience member, as part of the ticket price.

RD: Mmmmm.

CR: You mentioned that there’s some dancing in the show...

RD: ... Yes. I have been compared to a sea serpent trying to mate. Off-season...

CR: ... but also, I understand that you include some dinosaur impressions.

RD: Oh yes, I’ve fed a couple of dinosaurs into the show. Not literally. I do a good t-rex, pterodactyl, velociraptor...

CR: Ooh. That could be a problem. We’ve already got a British comedian called Hugh Dennis who does a magnificent velociraptor.

RD: Maybe we should have a dinosaur impression showdown. He can be a velociraptor, and I’ll be a pterodactyl and swoop down on him.

CR: Right. Anyway, you’re best known as Murray, the band manager in the sitcom Flight of the Conchords (shown in the UK on BBC4). There’s been rumours of a film based on the series flying around for ages - any truth in them?

RD: We had a ‘secret band meeting’ a couple of weeks ago, but nothing’s really progressed yet. We want to do something, but it’s down to them [fellow Kiwis Brett McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, the musical/comedy duo who go by the name Flight of the Conchords and write/star in the series], and they’re pretty busy touring at the moment.

CR: So what are you up to in LA at the moment? Schmoozing and swinging your way into the film industry, or would you prefer to do more television?

RD: Whatever tickles my fancy. I like doing TV, because it’s more like a normal job - it lasts longer, and you get to know everyone working on it, so it becomes more like a family. Saying that, I did have a big US sitcom, and moved over here last year to work on it - and it got cancelled after just a few episodes. It was good that it was in a way; it was tightly scripted, with set up punchlines and American fake laughter. It didn’t stretch me. I like things looser and more improvised.

CR: You played one of the pirate radio DJs in Richard Curtis’ film The Boat That Rocked - that had the feel that you were all working as a family and improvising a lot of the time.

RD: We had a lot of fun on that film. We were all on the boat down in Southampton a lot of the time, and when we did our bits on the radio mic, we were really allowed to let lose and do what we wanted.

The most interesting day was when I was thrown in the ocean and nearly drowned. I was meant to be struggling to swim, but the wet suit I was wearing under my costume was making me too buoyant, so they put diving weights around my waist. I really started to struggle - so it may look like really good acting, but actually I was genuinely thinking I was going to drown.

CR: Your UK tour is going to be a far cry from LA - are you looking forward to it?

RD: Definitely. I’m also looking forward to seeing my wife and children who are going to be coming over to the UK for July and August. My two boys are six and two, and they don’t usually travel with me, so it’s going to be great to have them with me. We’re going to see all the sights. Are there any sights to see in Basingstoke?

CR: Yes. There’s Milestones, Hampshire’s Living History Museum. You can dress up in Victorian costumes, and walk around cobbled streets.

RD: Excellent. They’ll love that. We’ll have a ball in Basingstoke. Hopefully the show will be pretty good too.

* Rhys Darby brings his show, This Way To The Spaceship, to The Anvil in Basingstoke on Tuesday, July 10.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, June 28, 2012