Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Champion night - review of Ben Champion and Guests musical comedy night

Ben Champion and Guests musical comedy night at ACE Space, Newbury on Friday, March 9

I’VE always wanted to be a muse for a song, inspiring music of beauty and lyrics of joy. And on Friday, to my delight and great surprise it finally happened - the song being the moving and memorable punk-inspired future classic Ain’t Going Back To Basingstoke, by Newbury’s very own comedy singer-songwriter Ben Champion. Inspired by my dilemma about whether to see comedian Stewart Lee at The Anvil on Friday, or to come down and support something a little more home grown, he penned a ditty listing the myriad reasons that Basingstoke is not for the likes of us Newburians.

A packed ACE Space enjoyed an excellent night of musical hilarity organised by Champion, performing alongside three hand-picked acts: Natt Tapley, Ant Dewson and Horse & Louis (pictured above), who between them displayed how diverse musical comedy can be. From Champion’s own musicianship, showcasing a different style on each song, to Dewson’s laugh-a-line piano playing, Tapley’s reworking of Beatles classics (“Dear students... you’re going to have to pay...”) and Horse & Louis’ faux rock god stylings, the presentation was pleasantly varied, but never low on laughs.

Tapley kicked off the show, performing in character as “actual” London mayoral candidate Sir Ian Bowler, the self-styled Lesser of Three Evils. Reminiscent of Rik Mayall’s Alan B’Stard at his most oblivious to the little people, “Bowler”’s two musical interludes were rather an aside to his mainly stand-up routine, which worked very well considering he was performing at a “local gig for local people” (Champion’s description) who are probably mainly not that fussed about the mayoral election thingy going on up in the Smoke.

He may modestly describe himself as a “piano player (Grade 6) and singer of stupid songs”, but Dewson’s performance was pure, unadulterated hilarity. With naughty songs about his love for Carol Voderman and Richard Hammond, and a riposte to young people who believe that life ends at 30, he encouraged audience singalongs (very tuneful - well done, the ACE Space audience), and basically went down a storm.

Champion put himself third on the bill in addition to his compering duties, with some excellent songs which gave a little insight into his day job as a composer for children’s television, the perils of auto corrective texting, his thoughts on the Higgs Boson particle (“have you tried looking for it in the second drawer down?”) and his dreams of being an atheist priest and/or a ginger cowboy. Lovely stuff; another local talent we are very lucky to be able to call our own.

Horse & Louis (aka Nick Phillips and Louis Fences) took the night’s top slot, with a most entertaining set in the style of The Conchords and Tenacious D, the duo told stories about dating difficulties, call centre woes and the sexual posturing of musicians through the medium of rock opera. A frenetic and packed performance, the only disappointment was that their set was rather short, but it was an uplifting end to an excellent evening’s entertainment.

With a bar set this high, it should be hoped that such comedy nights become a regular diversification of ACE Space’s programming. I was certainly left wanting more.

(By the way, as it happened, I had to go to Basingstoke on Sunday morning, for a football match. Sometimes, there’s just no avoiding the place.)

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Firman Favourite - review of Pete Firman, Jiggery Pokery

Pete Firman at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on Friday, March 2

IT’S less than 18 months since magician Pete Firman last visited The Corn Exchange, and you don’t need special powers to tell that his star has risen in that time - possibly even in the last few weeks, during which he has been a regular Saturday night visitor to our teleboxes as one of The Magicians.
Back in October 2010, I described part of Firman’s charm being his “dishevelled appearance” and “intentionally under-polished performance”. Well, things have certainly changed since then. He’s smartened up (a bit), his props are much glossier (his box of tricks now has a velvet fringe), and he’s got his very own support act (self-proclaimed geek Chris Stokes; very good). Firman himself has moved on with his on-stage character, from a  mishap-prone geek who mixed cheesy jokes with snapshot lessons about the history of magic (I rather missed those), to a cod-ladies’ man with a twisted sense of humour.

However, while he may have gained some fame and fortune in recent months, his act isn’t all glitz and glamour; his way of selecting audience members to pick a card being to put the pack in a paint bucket dangled on a fishing rod - “maybe I should have removed the Homebase label”.

Quite a lot of Firman’s current Jiggery Pokery tour is cards and close-up based, and equipment he would benefit from would be a camera and big screen projector; much as the audience was blown away by the linked wedding rings trick, no one beyond the first few rows at The Corn Exchange could see for sure that they were the three actual rings taken from audience members. 

“You’ve missed the tigers,” quipped Firman to some latecomers a few minutes’ into the show, and he again poked fun at showy gaudity, with a finale that saw him ironically prancing Vegas-style to Wet Wet Wet’s Sweet Little Mystery. Firman may not be the most gasp-inducing of magicians, but he has sense of comedy that makes him very watchable. I said it before and I’ll say it again: Firman reminds me of fellow Middlesbrough progeny Paul Daniels (and not just because of their shared accent). He‘ll like that... not  lot, but he’ll like it.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, March 8, 2012

Champion the troubadour - interview with Ben Champion

ACE Space will be having them not only dancing but rolling in the aisles on Friday, March 9, when comedy singer-songwriter BEN CHAMPION brings along some other funny friends for an evening of musical comedy.

Having spent the last 10 years locked in a dimly-lit studio writing music and silly songs for cartoons and children’s television, last year Champion started writing comedy songs for grown-ups, and performing them at acoustic nights (including ACE Space’s monthly Unplugged events) and comedy clubs. CATRIONA REEVES found out more from the man himself.

Catriona Reeves: So Ben, are you from round these parts?

Ben Champion: I grew up in South London, went to Cambridge University, then spent my bohemian middle 20s playing in bands and living on a boat in Richmond. I eventually settled down and had children, and decided to leave London for the usual, slightly boring, reasons: house, garden etc. I now live in Newbury and have a studio in New Greenham Park.

CR: Tell us a bit about the composing that you've done in the past.

BC: I started out writing music for low budget films which led to some TV work, and in 2003 I was asked to write some bits for series five of Absolutely Fabulous.

By that time I was already involved with animators and looking at doing more children’s and cartoon work, having scored a Channel 4 Christmas special called Little Wolf’s Book of Badness.

I went on to write music for the 2007 remake of Pinky and Perky, as well as writing songs for CBeebies and several other children’s channels. My current shows are Alphablocks on CBeebies, Olive The Ostrich on Nick Jr., and The Hive on CITV and Disney Junior. I have the best job in the world, basically.

CR: What made you decide to move into the world of comedy and liv performance, and how has it been going?

BC: Well, two things happened: one was that I realised I was good at it. The other was that I got tired of being in my studio working on my own. I needed to get out more, essentially.

It’s been going really well. I’ve been playing my material locally at Unplugged and at other acoustic nights. I’ve entered a couple of new act competitions and got through to the quarter finals of one (Laughing Horse New Act of the Year). 

CR: Is this something you'd like to do more of in the future, or are you keeping your hand in with the composing as well?

BC: During the day I write silly songs for children, and in the evening I write and play silly songs for adults, so I don’t see the two things as mutually exclusive. I am treating the musical comedy as a parallel career and would love to be able to do more, with a view to taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe either this year or next.

But I’m under no illusions as to how hard it is to earn a living in comedy, so I’m going to be doing both for a while I should think.

CR: What are your songs about? Which one goes down a storm?

BC: My songs are about all kinds of different things. Ideas jump out at me that have comic potential. For example, I was chatting to a journalist friend a while back who had just been to Holland to interview a minister in the church who was a self-confessed atheist. I thought maybe the Church of England might benefit from a similarly enlightened policy, so I wrote a song called Atheist Priest

I’ve also written a break-up song about the perils of the auto-correct function on my smartphone - and another about a sunburnt cowboy. 

I like my songs to have a strong central idea and a high proportion of actual jokes - if I can make it a half-decent song as well, that’s the icing on the cake.

CR: Do you have any musical comedy heroes?

BC: In the last ten years, I’d have to cite Flight of the Conchords, Mitch Benn and Tim Minchin of course.

Going back further I’d say Victoria Wood, Tom Lehrer, Jake Thackeray, and even Cole Porter and Noel Coward. I love clever, funny lyrics allied with great song-writing and musical ability. 

CR: What can people expect from the other acts you're bringing with you? Are they your personal selection?

BC: Yes, all three are acts that I’ve seen over the last year on the circuit, and bring different things to the evening. 

Natt Tapley plays an angry Tory MP character called Sir Ian Bowler and will do a couple of songs as well. Ant Dewson is a very funny song-writer who I met at a comedy night in December - he’s a bit ruder than me, but his songs are packed with jokes. Horse and Louis are a great double act who do songs and music-based sketches, and were finalists in the Musical Comedy Awards back in 2010. I first saw them in Edinburgh last August and think they will make a great headline act.

CR:. I am currently pencilled in to review Stewart Lee in Basingstoke the night you're playing ACE Space. Can you persuade me to come to see you instead?

BC: Hahaha good one. Well, you could spend a couple of hours listening to a cynic whispering his way through a studious analysis of what comedy is, while omitting anything that resembles an actual joke...

Or you could come to my gig for a couple of hours of real entertainment, and get the chance to be the first person to review my material. You never know, in a couple of years you may even be able to say you discovered me.

Plus, then you wont have to go to Basingstoke. 

CR: Anything else you would like to share with the good readers of the Newbury Weekly News?

BC: Can’t think of anything right now. Other than does anyone know a good plumber? My boiler’s been playing up.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, March 1, 2012