This is now the fourth year that a bunch of us have ventured into the Heart of Rural England (or so the county welcome signs say) for an overnighter at the Leicester Comedy Festival. For this jaunt, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by Lord and Lady Prosecco, Professor and Mrs Plum, the Squire of Sidcup and the Wise Woman of Wembley, Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters, Prinz Mark von Köln, and Lady Headington. It was like herding The Aristocats. With an ambitious programme of seeing seven shows on Saturday and four on Sunday, which we almost achieved, I hadn’t quite realised how many of the shows I’d arranged were Work in Progress. One the one hand, that does give you a fascinating insight into the creative process. On the other hand, it does mean that some shows (or at least elements of some shows) can be a bit meh. Let’s dive straight into Round One.
Andy Barr: Collected Jokes, Poems and Thoughts 2010-2020 – Upstairs at the Firebug
This was something of a curiosity. Emphatically not, as it happens, a Work in Progress show; quite the opposite in fact – Andy Barr’s Greatest Hits of the past decade. It is the nature of a festival like this that you take a punt on someone you don’t know – and sometimes it’s gold, and sometimes it’s myrrh. Mr Barr was new to us, and I spent the best part of the fifty minutes trying to get into his mind to gauge his persona – and in the end, he had erected so many distancing devices inside his show that I just couldn’t get there. In a nutshell, he does a deadpan delivery so well that you can’t distinguish the act (and the content) from his just having a really bad Saturday.
He nicely deconstructed the stereotypical Festival-type act by setting up a timer on his laptop which counted down 35 minutes of good stuff to be followed by 10 minutes of serious sad stuff (that would, allegedly, make him eligible for an award) and then finishing with 5 minutes of last chance guffaws. It’s a neat idea, and makes a great point about the artificiality of a stand-up act. The trouble is… it is meant to be funny though, and I just didn’t get it. To be fair, I liked his Greek mythology trilogy of poems, and I completely understood that his act was that he pretended to be totally unprepared whereas it was (probably) prepared to the nth degree. And there were a few elements that warranted a few gentle chuckles. But I didn’t understand the drinking, and I didn’t understand his serious sad bit. And there were no last-minute guffaws. Altogether very odd. In the end I couldn’t decide if it was me on bad form or him, so let’s call it an honourable draw.
Ali Brice: The Autumn/Winter Collection – Upstairs at the Firebug
Although it doesn’t mention it, this was a Work in Progress show, as Ali Brice pointed out to us early in his set. Here was another fifty minutes that didn’t do what I expected it to do – not that I really knew what to expect. The clues were all there in the pre-show blurb – giving himself an endorsement quote from a totally fictitious reviewer (nice touch) and saying it’s produced by another couple of people who are also, clearly, him. The genre was described as Alternative, Mime, but if you were expecting the next Trygve Wakenshaw, you’d have been disappointed.
I wasn’t, but I was still disappointed. During a later-in-the-day post-mortem, we all agreed that his continuous conversation with a chap in the second row, who, we worked out from their exchanges, is also a comic, was or is a flatmate, and obviously has some dubious sexual practices involving cardboard, made the rest of us feel excluded. It didn’t help that you suspected that this other chap was probably funnier than Mr Brice – perhaps the two could have swapped places. It also didn’t help when he did try to involve other members of the audience in his material (often a springboard to some comedy gems); it felt rather aggressive and confrontational. He asked me a question at one point and I obviously gave him an answer he wasn’t expecting (I wasn’t being tricky, honest) and he just cut the conversation dead because it wasn’t funny. Well, I have to agree with him there.
There were some nice ideas somewhere in the background, for sure, and he came up with the occasional flash of a brilliant turn of phrase. But it all felt rather… vacant. Not so much trying out some new material you’ve been practising in your bedroom, more that moment when you have to tell the teacher that your dog ate your homework. The one comic idea that he had carried through to any kind of conclusion, where he takes a photo of someone’s eyes with his phone then holds the phone up to his face to pretend to be them, was ruined by some clumsy phone handling and a rather crass punchline (or punch-image as it happens.) I’m afraid this one wasn’t for me.
Stuart Goldsmith: The Accident (Work in Progress) – Grays@LCB Depot – Lightbox
And now, as they used to say, for something completely different. If you know Stuart Goldsmith’s work and style, it will come as no surprise that this show, despite being billed as work in progress, was incredibly slick and Mr Goldsmith’s approach was confident, pacey, articulate, intelligent, and thoroughly well-planned and executed. The Accident in question (see title) was a time on holiday abroad when he was a kid and the family were involved in a car accident that left most of them with quite a few injuries. Mr G uses this as a thread that runs through the whole show although a lot of the material that he spun didn’t have an obvious connection to it.
The show is filled with his observations about life as a parent of two, now living in Bristol (favourite line of the day was probably I left the city I love for the woman I like) and his daily confrontations with trendy middle-class angst that he does so well. When it comes to constructing a detailed build-up to an intricate story, he is a master craftsman, and is always a pleasure to watch. If you’re a fan of Mr G, once he’s honed the show to perfection, you’re going to love it to pieces. Foolishly we arrived only about five minutes before the show started and had to stand at the back. Be warned; he’s popular.
Robin Morgan: Work in Progress – Manhattan 34 – Downstairs bar
We’d seen Robin Morgan once before at a Screaming Blue Murder a couple of years ago, and we liked his fresh, preppy style. So I thought it would be worth a punt coming to see his Work in Progress – how, indeed, is he progressing? Extremely well, as it turns out. Terrifically confident but not in a brash way – quite reverse in fact, he comes across as having an endearing innocence which allows him to get away with quite a lot of cheekiness. He’s great with the audience too, viz. the conversation he had with Lady Headington about tampons and the extended chats with Professor Plum about his vasectomy.
He’s incredibly proud about his appearance on BBC 1 (Wales, ahem) and is developing some great material about his mother’s affair (whether or not she had one), sex education, and the repercussions of having a vasectomy (to be honest, Prof. Plum proved to be of little help with some of his questions). He had a clever knack of turning the fact that this was a WIP show into something of a game, mutually agreeing with the audience what was good and what wasn’t. And he got the lot of us to recite the Lord’s Prayer, which freaked him out and which is some feat for a Saturday afternoon. We all thought he was terrific, and unanimously (I think) was considered the best show we saw all weekend.
Heaven Knows I’m Friz Frizzle Now – Grays@LCB Depot – Lightbox
Did anyone book this show thinking it would be about the Smiths? asked Friz Frizzle in his introductory moments to our first post-dinner show (Chutney Ivy, by the way, excellent). Answer came there none, because if you’re in the know you’ll already understand that Mr Frizzle is the best song ruiner in the business. We saw him as part of Late Night Jokes on Us a couple of years back and he was probably the most entertaining act we saw at Leicester that year. So we all agreed that an hour spent in the company of Mr F would be a wise move.
Sitting there innocently at his keyboard like a cross between a Church organist and Dangermouse’s pal Penfold, Friz takes a classic song from all our yesterdays, plonks it into a totally unrelated scenario, and punfully plays on the words with hopefully devastatingly funny effect. However; there is an unmistakable problem with Mr F’s act. If you don’t know the original song that he’s lampooning, the joke just flies way over your head and you’re left staring resentfully at those who do. That was the fate that befell Lady Prosecco, who sat there glumly for an hour. The rest of us, however, were laughing our socks off, as inappropriate lyric followed inappropriate lyric whilst still fitting perfectly into their respective songs.
I won’t offer up any examples of his mischievous mind because so much of the fun comes from unexpected surprises. Another unexpected aspect came when he opened up about his own mental health. Laughing about ruined lyrics feels terribly trivial in comparison with mental health problems, and, whilst it’s great that he felt able to share some of his experiences, and by so doing enables others to do the same, I can’t say that it sat comfortably in the environment of nonsensical musical comedy. Whether he needs to find a way of dovetailing that content in more subtly, or maybe creating a brand-new show that looks at mental health, and maybe combining the content with more specific mental health-based lyrics, I don’t know. And it certainly didn’t spoil the show; it just, somehow, felt a little out of place. Nevertheless, we all (nearly all) loved it and will continue to follow his career with great interest.
Mark & Haydn: Work in progress – Just the Tonic at BrewDog
I’ll be honest, gentle reader; there were about five acts on at roughly the right time for the 9.30pm slot in our programme, all of which looked good and would, I am sure, have been suitable entertainment for us all. The reason I chose Mark and Haydn was because Haydn is the spitting image of Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters’ son, The Honourable Davey, and I thought it would be a hoot to see him in action.
And, to be fair, I wasn’t wrong. With a WIP sketch show some of it will fall on stony ground, but some will land on good soil, spread forth and multiply; and I’d say a good three-quarters of this show had top quality material or at least tweakably top quality material. Generally strong points to the act were 1) the fact that the two guys are physically (and probably mentally) very different and they spark off each other superbly to create an exciting stage energy. Also, 2) I was very impressed by how much preparation had gone into some of the sketches, and that really paid dividends.
Among my favourite moments were Haydn spouting off some ultra-dramatic tosh whilst we see a projection of what Mark is tapping on his phone (funnier than it sounds); a high profile PowerPoint presentation that goes wrong (call me a child but I loved the revelation of Haydn’s internet password); and the pair of TV pundits pointing out some ridiculous observations on a football game. All of these took meticulous preparation and I applaud the guys for going to the effort – it really paid off. Good fun – and certainly One(s) to Watch!
Ben Briggs: ZEIT-HEIST – The Cookie
We’re into the Sunday events now and our first show absolutely divided us. I’d not seen Ben Briggs before but had heard quite a lot about him, being a local (Northampton) lad done good. Technically there were a few problems for him; for one thing, the poor sod’s suffering from a hernia so had to limp up to the stage – not a good look and indeed he must have been feeling rubbish. Worse for us though was that The Cookie’s stage lighting had a nervous breakdown and started flashing lurid colours all over the place, with the result that for most of the show Mr B had a green face with a red outline. He looked like the Incredible Hulk with radiation sickness.
There’s no question that Mr B is a naturally funny man, who doesn’t shy away from tricky subjects like racism, and he has some routines with killer lines that he absolutely nails. He uses a brilliant retort in a sequence where an American confronts a Brit saying that without them, we’d all be speaking German. He’s also got a grotesque (but hilarious) routine about Egyptian tummy on a holiday where he hardly left the loo. He seemed alarmed that a lot of us in the audience were – shall we say – from the older generation. Honestly, no need to be alarmed; we’ve still got a sense of humour, promise.
This was a show that had some well-tried and rehearsed material and also some new stuff being road-tested. On the whole I thought it all flowed together pretty well. I have a sense that he’s the kind of comic who appeals to guys more than women; that certainly seemed to be the reaction from our party of twelve. I probably emitted more and louder guffaws at this show than I did at any other, so that’s got to be saying something! But he’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.
Kevin Precious: Teachers and Schools Work in Progress – Kayal Upstairs
Having loved his Unholier than Thou show last year, it was a no-brainer to catch Mr Precious again with his new WIP show, Teachers and Schools. He’s a naturally funny guy with a gift of exposing the little things in life that we all recognise and find ridiculous. For his new show, he’s tackling the stupidities of life at school – primarily from the teacher’s point of view. It’s fair to say that this WIP is at a fairly early stage, but nevertheless there were still plenty of school-life recollections that rang ominous bells.
I particularly tuned into the ghastly thought of what lurks behind the staffroom door – I’m sure we all remember kids being bellowed at by a grumpy teacher for daring to put a foot or a nose past that all-hallowed hinge. On my last day at school a teacher actually invited me into the staffroom to tell me I’d got a place at university – and I still found myself unable to breach that scary portal. Mr P explores this and several other weird hang-ups that we all have of those “happiest days of our lives”, with intelligence, wit and the insight of knowing the secrets of the staffroom. Once he’s sorted the wheat from the chaff, and delved deeper into some of his ideas, I’m sure this will be another excellent show.
Matt Green: Nice Scarf – Kayal Upstairs
For our last show of the weekend, we caught up with Matt Green and his Nice Scarf show – so called, because he comes on stage wearing a nice scarf. And why not? We’ve seen Mr Green a few times now, at a couple of Screaming Blue Murders and an Edinburgh Spank!, and he’s always slick, smart but self-deprecating, which is a good mix. He involved the audience quite a bit – specifically Mrs C and me and the Squire of Sidcup – and it was all very jovial and good-natured. Blessed with a cherubic appearance – of which he makes many a reference – this belies the toughness of some of his material, which makes it even more telling. It was largely well-tried and tested routines, but with a few new ideas; and it was all very funny and enjoyable – a perfect way to end the weekend!
So, what did we learn from our Leicester weekend experience?
- If they’re well-behaved, a group of twelve people is perfectly manageable provided you allow them to do their own thing occasionally.
- The move from paper tickets to e-tickets worked better than I expected. Just tell the ticket checker: “I’m part of the group of 12” and they let you in.
- You can get too much comedy. The fizz flopped out of us when it came to attending the last show of both days – hence we saw 9 out of a planned 11 shows.
- If you’re in the vicinity, Chutney Ivy is perfect for a superb Indian pre-theatre dinner; it’s a set meal so you don’t waste half your eating time choosing from the menu.
- Only one of the venues we visited was accessibility-friendly. You’d have to plan very carefully if you had mobility issues.
- For me, personally, don’t sit at the end of the rows in The Cookie because you have to sit skewed to watch the comedian, so that you irritate your vertebrae and as a result you trigger muscle pain for several days. Waaaaah!
We had a great time! Back again next year!