Sunday, April 07, 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

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