Sunday, April 28, 2013

Lighting up the gloom - review of James Grant (Love and Money)

James Grant at The Forge, The Anvil, Basingstoke, on Friday, April 5

NEVER meet your teen crushes goes the rule - but luckily it all works out just fine when it turns out that they’ve still got a magnificent head of hair, a gorgeous Glaswegian accent, cheekbones that could cut diamonds, and a voice like velvet. Tennent’s Velvet Ale, maybe....? Nah - it would have to be a smooth malt whisky.

Back in the late ’80s, James Grant was the singer with Love and Money, a band of the Scottish blue-eyed soul genre (think Wet Wet Wet, Deacon Blue, Hue & Cry, Del Amitri - whose singer Justin Currie recently performed at Arlington Arts) who achieved reasonable success; mainly in their homeland, but also, unexpectedly, in the Upper V common room at St Gabriel’s School, Newbury. 

Deprived of much real male contact (well, some of us were, anyway), the band’s songs of love and loss moulded our expectations of adult life and relationships. They were probably a pretty good preparation for the world beyond the common room in fact, as Grant’s “miserablist” style of songwriting offers a realistically pessimistic view on life.

Nearly 25 years on, and Grant has continued writing and performing, both with Love and Money, who reformed in 2011, and as a solo act. While he has released five solo albums, he is not reluctant to play the songs from the past that are best known, and so we had the pleasure of hearing the gorgeous Strange Kind Of Love, from the 1988 album of the same name. Performed by Grant and his guitar, it was maybe even more lovely without the slightly bombastic (over?) production of the original version which set it firmly in an era long gone.

Grant doesn’t do upbeat, either musically or lyrically, and the old themes of love and loss are still foremost; alongside death, most poignantly on My Father’s Coat from his 2009 solo album Strange Flowers -  but the tunes are beautiful, the lyrics touching, and the alternately romantic and melancholy vibes showcase his liquid voice to perfection. An intimate gig in The Anvil’s tiny Forge studio also allowed Grant to display his dark humour as he told tongue-in-cheek tales of his young manhood as a semi-rockstar (he once smashed a typewriter) and the death of his family budgie.

I left the gig vowing to finally replace my cassette tape copy of Strange Kind Of Love, and delighted that at least one of my major teenage crushes had revealed itself to be well founded - and like the best whiskies, ageing very well indeed.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, April 11, 2013

Wild thing - review of Michaela Strachan's Really Wild Adventures

Michaela Strachan’s Really Wild Adventures, at The Haymarket, Basingstoke, on Saturday, April 6

THE DADS of Hampshire must be big fans of poetry, because I observed far more of them in the audience than turn out for most family shows. And they were so devoted to their children as well; queuing patiently to allow them to meet the lovely Michaela Strachan after the show. A truly heartwarming sight.

I am being a bit cheeky there, of course - Strachan has a place in the hearts of many (both men and women) who grew up in the 80s when she was a presenter on Children’s BBC’s Really Wild Show, as well as the cult late night ITV clubbing show The Hitman And Her. I must admit that I was pretty excited to meet Strachan myself - she was central in developing my fondness for earrings at a tender age; as I told her baffled young niece when I discovered that I was sat next to her during the show.

...Really Wild Adventures is based on Strachan’s book of poems of the same name, which in turn are inspired by her own experiences encountering wildlife in all parts of the world for various nature programmes - she will soon be back on our screens presenting BBC’s Springwatch. This was no gentle poetry corner-style performance though; Strachan’s stage show was full of fun, music, audience participation and even acrobatics, as she hung upside down in gravity boots to recite her poem about Wrapped Up Bats.

Strachan’s poems are not just full of facts, but also reflect the emotions drawn from encounters that have genuinely touched her, such as meeting orphaned elephants, rhinos and orangutans; and the thrills of removing a tooth from a polar bear and getting really close to her beloved African penguins on the coast of South Africa, where she now lives.

Her enthusiasm for the natural world was displayed with affection and joy, and although the show was aimed at ages three to 10 (and, I would suggest, more appealing to the younger end of that span), the parents were sparked by her enthusiasm as well - although, oddly, not enough for many of the dads present to volunteer to come on stage to imitate animal noises or play the part of a spitting cobra or an anesthetised polar bear. Luckily, Strachan’s mum was present, and proved herself to be as good a sport as her daughter, who bounced around with as much life-affirming enthusiasm as she did on the telly back when we were young.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, April 11, 2013

Half the Benn he used to be - review of Mitch Benn

Mitch Benn at New Greenham Arts, on Friday, April 5

MUSICAL comedian Mitch Benn is half the man he used to be. Well, very nearly - he lost 10 stone (from a peak of 25st) on an intense diet in 2011, and has kept most of it off. And so, his current tour, Reduced Circumstances, based on his Edinburgh show of the same name, is inspired by his fight to overcome that least rock & roll of addictions - food.

The tour’s name also refers to it being Benn’s first solo tour, without his usual live backing duo The Distractions, and involves a little more conversation and less singing than his past performances. Armed just with a teeny tiny guitar and an iPhone looper app, Benn partly moved away from his usual social commentary to delve deep into his psyche and explore why he had an urge to overeat, although he concluded that it was not down to a traumatic childhood or the fault of his parents “which was a relief to them when they came to see the show”.

Benn didn’t spend the entire show navel gazing - Reduced Circumstances also references the current state of the nation, and his cheeky musings on the subject ranged from the insightful - comparing the banking crisis to his daughter learning to walk - “she was fine until she noticed that nothing was holding her up” - via the educational, in the form of a rap about quantum mechanics; to the delightfully silly, such as his new song Bouncy Druids, inspired by the full-size blow-up Stonehenge featured in the Olympic opening ceremony.

As a stalwart of BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show, Benn composes songs at short notice to reflect the week’s news, but while expressing a little disappointment that the show is currently off-air, he chose  to keep last week’s biggest event on the down-low, other than a comment on the BBC’s decision not to play the Wizard Of Oz song in full was “making a political statement which playing it would not have been”.

As one of the BBC’s most vocal supporters, as showcased in his epic list-song I’m Proud of the BBC, Benn was clearly frustrated that the corporation had bowed to pressure on this occasion. But what has baffled him most about the world in recent times has been the response of some of his larger fans to his weight loss, who have expressed feelings of betrayal. “I didn’t do it to be smug, I just wanted to see my daughters grow up,” he explained. “It was a case of breaking their (the fans) hearts, or literally breaking mine.” 

Aesthetic improvements may be solely a by-product of the health benefits of Benn’s weight loss, but with his twinkling blue eyes, he is looking damn fine these days, and still has a good pair of lungs on him. Reduced Circumstances may be a departure from the performance norm for Benn, but (along with a forthcoming science fiction novel), it suggests a career longevity beyond a back catalogue of current affairs songs, which owing to their very nature, are bound to have a limited shelf life.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Scary monsters and super creeps - review of The Gruffalo's Child

The Gruffalo’s Child, at The Corn Exchange, Newbury, on Friday, March 22 to Sunday, March 24

LIKE the best fairy tales, a lot of young children’s picture books have a slightly scary slant to them; but enough is left to the imagination, and judicious interpretation of a handy grown up, to take the edge off any fear that they may induce.

It is when these tales are transposed into moving images, be it in cartoons, on stage or live action television and film, where the challenges arise, of how to keep the fun frights in, without giving little people the major heeby jeebies. The 2009 Spike Jonze film of Where The Wild Things Are; I’m not sure how much it frightened the children I saw it with, but the constant sense that young Max could be eaten by the beasts he rules over at any minute put the terrors into me.

And so, Julia Donaldson’s much-loved books, The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child, set similar challenges. As monsters go, The Gruffalo is rather cuddly, but let’s face facts: he eats anthropomorphic mice. And owls, foxes and snakes. He is not a beast to be toyed with, despite his cutey-pie face.

In its three-hand hour-long production of The Gruffalo’s Child, Tall Stories gets the balance just right. The Gruffalo spends most of the show asleep, and all of it sat down, as he cuddles his daughter and warns her about the Big Bad Mouse (the never-seen Mrs Gruffalo is presumably out gathering normal-sized mice for breakfast). One or two audience members let out a bit of a wail when he first appeared - a large three-dimensional Gruffalo strikes an imposing figure and bound to create a bit of a stir on first meeting - but it all settled down pretty quickly.

Against his dad’s wise advice, the Child ventures into the deep, dark woods to find the fabled Big Bad Mouse, meeting along the way the snaked-hipped (of course) Snake, RAF officer Owl and a spivving Fox,  all of whom are tempted to turn the mini Gruffalo into their favourite dish until the mouse is mentioned and they make a sharp exit.

Zingy songs and fast-paced scenes added plenty of fun to neutralise the bleakness of the snowy, windy woods with its clawing trees lit by a large, heavy moon, and the three performers worked their socks off to make a jolly old time of it for audience members young and old. The book didn’t feel stretched for the sake of dramatic effect, with each of the predatory animals (played by the same actor) being given a strong character to play with and get the audience involved.

This was a production that treated the source material, and children’s intelligence, with full respect, without veering either towards mawkishness or nightmare-inducing horror. I’m going to let you into a secret now - neither me or my own child (not a Gruffalo) are massive fans of Julia Donaldson’s books - but after seeing this show, we will be giving them another go. Although she will now expect me to do all the voices.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on March 28, 2013

Geek love - review of Matt Parker

Matt Parker: The Number Ninja, at New Greenham Arts, Greenham on Saturday, March 9

IT is the sign of the high level of nerdiness and geekery that my plus-one for mathematician Matt Parker’s first solo stand up comedy/maths show wore a “Klein bottle” hat, knitted from a pattern created by Parker’s mum to his specifications. For those who need a reminder, the Klein bottle is a non-orientable two-dimensional manifold; like a Mobius strip without surface boundaries. And it makes a surprisingly wearable hat.

Parker is a former maths teacher and current academic who led the way with the whole science + laughter = massive fun formula when he combined his day job with his evening semi-pro career in stand-up comedy. Although his live shows, and appearances on Radio 4’s Infinite Monkey Cage do appeal to self-styled nerds whose brains are very nearly too enormous to be housed by a Klein bottle hat, his clear and enthusiastic insights into the weirder side of maths are accessible to nearly all.

The show was a gathering of maths with the wow-factor, such as the amazing and unexpected shapes created by cutting Mobius strips in half, how the heptagrin is the perfect shape for a pizza slice (it also makes a fab skirt),  the non-transitive Grime dice, which will always beat (or lose) to each other, and hefty use of  self-referential meta-ness.

He also shone a light on the concept of coincidence, proving how there is nothing that coincidental about a couple discovering that they were unintentionally captured in the same photograph in a random location as children (although it is still pretty spooky - and I know a married couple it happened to); and how the triangulation of leylines between Stone Age monuments works as well with those ancient temples of consumerism known as “Woolworths”.

The only part of the show where I completely lost my way was during Parker’s explanation of the application of the largest number that has every been put to applied use in human history. Parker used the X Factor as a way of explaining it, but it was still too enormous a concept for me to grasp, with Parker speeding up with his extrapolation as the number got larger and larger; stopping, thankfully, just before my head actually exploded. 

During the interval I heard a group of audience members commenting that it wasn’t “so much comedy as [Parker] pointing out things”. When I put that to him after the show, Parker retorted “well, that’s what Michael McIntyre does...” I think out of the two, if I’m going to have stuff pointed out to me, I’d prefer it to have meaning. But don’t just take my word for it. Carry out your own research, and review the evidence. If we all welcome a little bit more maths into our lives, things can only get meta...

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on March 14, 2013

Back in town - review of Mark Steel

Mark Steel’s In Town, at Arlington Arts, Snelsmore, on Thursday, March 7

I REALISE that I’ve unintentionally broken my “no reviewing the same act within two years” in covering Mark Steel’s In Town show again (although technically I’m just OK, as he last visited Newbury on February 2011), but he’s such good fun that I couldn’t resist a return trip.

Anyway, although the basic premise is the same - Steel does a bit of reading up on the more quirky history of an area before pitching up in a town and sharing his findings - two further years of touring with ...In Town (as well as three Radio 4 series based on it, with a fourth on the way) have provided lots more glorious anecdotes about his favourite findings.

And so, we we were treated to his thoughts on Basingstoke (“I walked out of the station and into the shopping mall to try and find the town centre... and came out of the other side”), an insight into the life of the long suffering real-life residents of Miss Hoolie’s cottage in Tobermory (aka Balamory in the CBeebies series), and an audience member in Skipton, Yorkshire, describing nearby Keighley as “ sink of evil”.

Steel appears to have a genuine affection for Newbury and its surrounding countryside (particularly the swans), and while none of his discovered facts about the town were revelatory - and indeed I fear that we as the audience may have mislead him into believing that we have an innate rivalry with Wantage, when of course everyone knows our natural foes are Basingstoke - they were told with a fondness that suggests that he may not know a lot about us, but he can see beyond the generic image of Newbury as Vodatown.

From the Walsall hippo (an underwhelming but much-loved town centre statue) to the tall tales of the fishermen of Penzance, Steel wants people to celebrate the quirks of their hometown, whether they are there by birth or circumstances. As most high streets become identical (“the H&M, the Woolworths that’s now a pound shop, the closing-down HMV”), he urged us to look round the corners - quite literally in the case of Newbury, where a turn into Marsh Lane reveals the magnificent Tudor facade of Jack of Newbury’s house, and a trip down to the canal just steps from Northbrook Street takes you into the territory of Steel’s beloved swans.

In the words of a spoof radio tourist advert sent to Steel and played at the start of the second half, where else can you sunbathe in the park and watch the cars passing on the main road just yards away? Newbury - let’s all learn to love it. It’s what Steel would want.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on March 14, 2013

Friday, April 05, 2013

Straight outta Cowley - review of Stornoway

Stornoway at New Greenham Arts, Greenham on Monday, February 18

NOT actually from the Isle of Lewis as the name suggests but in fact formed in Oxford (they clearly considered it a more atmospheric name than “Cowley”; Stornoway are on the more interesting end of the spectrum of the new folk rock sound so often drowned out by the likes of the ubiquitous Mumford &  Sons. For a start, they have a saw-on-woodblock combo as a percussion instrument, and a large metal cylinder that gets bashed to oblivion. And - possibly most pleasingly - a lot less banjo.

As the first band to be allowed a standing gig at New Greenham Arts, Stornoway conquered the Monday night blues to attract a sell-out crowd, the largest probably seen on the former USAF air base since the Prodigy played in one of the old aircraft hangers in the mid-90s.

They may not have visited their remote namesake town until 2010, but Stornoway’s sound is certainly evocative of the windswept Outer Hebrides: lush layers of music sweep and soar before being stripped back to a soundscape of near-bleakness for acoustic moments and even acapella singing. There are two sets of brothers in the band, and the phenomenon of sibling harmony that arises from a shared vocal timbre is a string to Stornoway’s bow.

A slight naive tilt to some of the lyrics of songwriter and frontman Brian Briggs grated a little with the overall maturity of Stornoway’s music. For the otherwise gorgeous Farewell Appalachia!  Briggs appears to have imbibed a thesaurus of countryside terms: Through the scree at the foot of the bluff/  And I drank from the brook/ And I slept in the lee of the wood. And the line in their UK number four chart hit, Zorbing, “I feel like I just started uni” just makes me feel a bit old.

Aside from traumatising some audience members (ie me) with the realisation that at least some of these immensely talented “songsmiths, scholars, scientists and men of the earth” are young enough to be my offspring, Stornoway attracted a wonderfully wide spread of ages to NGA, and the ability of this band and their ilk to induct a new generation into the folk genre deserves a generous doff of the cap.

And anyway - any band that can produce a song as lovely as The Coldharbour Road can be forgiven a few duff lyrics along the way.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, March 5, 2013

Tougher than Afghanistan - review of Paul Tonkinson

Paul Tonkinson at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on Saturday, February 16, 2013

IT is the mark of an excellent comedian that they can take a gig which is going down a bit of a strange route - with a “contrary” audience who aren’t so much heckling as auditioning the act - and turn it to their advantage. I’m not sure that Paul Tonkinson managed to perform much of his planned routine (one joke, about Northern Rock, was completely abandoned), but I doubt that anyone felt short-changed by his performance, which saw him bouncing off the audience like a raver in an Ibizan superclub.

A rather relevant simile, as it happens, as Tonkinson disclosed (in a planned part of the show) that he is a former raver who has loved-up flash backs to a more hedonistic time whenever he hears a dance tune from that era - even if it’s in a supermarket. But Tonkinson is no addled E-casualty; he’s now the father of three rising teens, who diss him at every opportunity, and who now gets his buzz from buying a butter dish. 

Respect also needs to go to his wife for putting up with being a central part of his act, with her randy return home from a girls’ night out being re-enacted in a toe curling manner. Sex formed a largish part of Tonkinson’s set, but not in an overly blue manner - it was more about the cosy home comforts of pipe-and-slippers relations arising from a 17-year marriage.

Although Tonkinson has been on the stand-up comedy circuit for some 20 years, and won prestigious Time Out comedy awards early in his career, this is his first solo tour.  It may well be extended experience of the UK’s cut-throat comedy clubs and lack of crowd worship as a comedy god, that enabled him to respond so well to a potentially difficult audience. He laughed self-depracatingly at his low public profile, being mistaken for cyclist Bradley Wiggins being the nearest he gets to celebrity.

A regular entertainer of British troops abroad, Tonkinson described The Corn Exchange crowd as “tougher than Afghanistan”, but you could tell that actually this was exactly the sort of crowd that he likes to work with. I think we should clear one thing up for him though - after a palpable outcry from the audience, I fear that he left Newbury under the impression that Slough is not in the Royal County. Paul: Slough is in Berkshire. We just like to pretend that it isn’t.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, February 21, 2013