Review – Another Comedy Crate Night at the Black Prince, Northampton, 8th October 2020

Comedy CrateAs the nights begin to draw in and the thermometer starts to plummet there was still time for one last Comedy Crate night in the garden of the Black Prince before it simply gets just too damn chilly. We were accompanied by our friends Doctor Eurovision (not a real doctor) and the Duke of Dallington, who was dipping his toes into the local comedy scene for the first time. Fortunately, the entertainment was more than enough to keep us (relatively) toasty before Johnson’s curfew fell upon us all.

Tom HoughtonOur host for the night was Tom Houghton, whom we saw at Spank! last year – who knows if and when that’ll ever happen again – and he’s a very jovial chap with a slightly posh boy accent and an air of natural authority. He handled the extremely varied crowd with great aplomb and really grew into MC role as the night progressed. Great stuff.

Eleanor TiernanWe’d seen two of the acts before but they’re all good for a re-watch, especially post Covid-lockdown, which inspires everyone with fresh ideas. First up was Eleanor Tiernan, who has a gently Irish lilting style that can conceal a few hard-hitting punches. Her material is intelligent and quirky, with a few surreal insights about hair dryers and responding to unexpected requests in a taxi. I really enjoyed her take on the perils and pitfalls of coming out as gay at the start of the pandemic. A very enjoyable start to the show.

Josh PughNext came Josh Pugh, whom I thought we had seen before, but I was wrong! He comes on, all guns blazing, with some brilliantly funny material that had me in hysterics pretty much all the way through. He had a great sequence about how far do you take philosophical responses to break-ups, plus Jesus falling back on his carpentry skills and unmentionable things with hoovers. Hilarious, inventive and very down-to-earth without being overly coarse – we really enjoyed his act and I’d be very happy to see him again.

Noise Next DoorHeadlining were The Noise Next Door, an improv act whom we saw at the Leicester Comedy Festival last year when Johnny Vegas just about gave them enough time to do a bit of their act before the theatre had to close up for the night. They seek ideas and examples from the audience and then incorporate them into comedy songs and sketches – and their brains work in amazing ways! They do a great sequence where they speak alternate words (or even letters) in a foreign accent: this time it was Hungarians explaining antidisestablishmentarianism. Constantly surprising us with their improv skills it’s a great act – and I even bought a t-shirt afterwards.

Enormous fun as always. Their next show is on 5th November at the Picturedrome. Should be fireworks!

Review – The Comedy Crate back in the Garden of the Black Prince Pub, Northampton, 17th September 2020

Comedy CrateIt was only two weeks ago that we last came to the Black Prince to watch a comedy night in their back garden courtesy of The Comedy Crate. But two weeks is a long time in live comedy, so it was a delight to return for another show last night. I’m still working out whereabouts is the ideal position to sit, and, for this show we sat centrally but four tables back – and on reflection that was probably a little far from the performers for Optimum Atmosphere. Note to self: get closer next time. Still, our table was a riot, with Mrs Chrisparkle on the gluten-free beer, and Lord and Lady Prosecco together with Prinz Mark von Köln tucking into the drinks delicacies on offer from both bars. I, of course, was abstemious… ahem.

 

Will DugganOur MC this week was Will Duggan, someone we’ve not seen before, but he’s a lively spark and an amiable chap who strikes up a great rapport with the crowd. He devoted his stage time largely to getting to know the people near the front, and they were the usual motley crew of out-of-work singers, retirees and apparent prison inmates (not really, I’m sure.) There was also a chap who took a couple of the acts by surprise by his incredibly boyish features despite being the grand old age of 23. Indeed, he really did look like this was way past his bedtime. Mr D kept things moving at a nice pace and set up a few cunning callbacks for the comics to pounce on later.

 

Sarah CallaghanOur first act was Sarah Callaghan, who has a nicely confiding (and confident) style, letting us in to the secrets and undercurrents of her domestic life, with her close relationships with both her niece and her mother – and the wisdom of being a smoker under such circumstances. Lots of intelligent but funny family-type observations, and she’s proud to be a pessimist which creates some more good sequences. She has her own take on the #metoo movement, and I very much enjoyed her parting material about flying over the Grand Canyon. We’ve seen her a couple of times before including in Edinburgh where she mixed comedy with poetry – very successfully. Perhaps she didn’t think Northampton to cope with poetry! Anyway, her act was very enjoyable and nicely paving the way for what was to come.

 

Bobby MairSecond up was the brilliant Bobby Mair; we’d seen him at a Screaming Blue Murder three years ago. And although his characterisation is the same – that of your friendly local psychopath who can be trusted to say the wrong thing if at all possible – I’m pretty sure it was all fresh new material and absolutely top quality stuff. I particularly relished his routines about mental health – a subject matter on which many comics might teeter perilously – but he totally smashed it. One member of the audience suggested that we all have some mental illness, which was the cue for him to do a perfect putdown using a brilliant analogy. I loved his observations about narcissists and Trump (yes, the two in the same breath) – and I didn’t want him to stop. Fantastic.

 

Paul SinhaOur headline act was the sublime Paul Sinha, whom we’ve seen a few times before, and was indeed the recipient of the Chrisparkle Award for Best Screaming Blue Murder Stand-up for both 2010 and 2012. Ever since he’s been a big name on TV’s The Chase, he’s referred to the show as part of his act to some extent, and so he did this time too. However, you could say that a lot has happened in his life over the past few years – including getting married and being diagnosed with Parkinson’s – and he’s come up with a very creative way of funnelling all that personal material into the act; by telling the story of the past few years by means of verse and (occasional) song. If the prospect of that might make you cringe a little, rest assured it works superbly. It’s such a deftly-written and structured routine, full of wonderful side cultural references, with the full range of modern day heroes from Priti Patel to Gemma Collins (I use the word heroes inadvisably on purpose) – and we all absolutely loved it. Full of hilarity but also full of pathos – an irresistible combination. After it was all over, we left the venue on a warm mental comedy high.

 

One more Comedy Crate night at the Black Prince coming up on 8th October, including the Noise Next Door whom we saw at the Leicester Comedy Festival last year and are incredible. You have to come too!

Review – The Comedy Crate at the Black Prince Northampton – again, 3rd September 2020

Comedy CrateAs this wonderful year whirls its merry way into September, a few more live events continue to emerge from the mist. Hurrah that this includes the second visit of The Comedy Crate team to the extensive back garden at the Black Prince pub in Northampton, for another night of comedy. This time Mrs Chrisparkle and I were not only accompanied by Lord and Lady Prosecco, together with heir to the Prosecco estate, Prinz Mark von Köln, but also our friend Dr Eurovision (one of our few friends to have their own nickname and not one supplied by me!) Fortunately the rain decided to give us a break but in any case we would have been protected by that big marquee so your only chance of getting wet is queueing for a beer or a Sauvignon Blanc.

 

Archie MaddocksThings started a little late as, by 7pm, scheduled kick-off time, our headline act hadn’t actually left home yet – a mere 90 miles away. Therefore we had a couple of changes, but comedy thrives on the seat of its pants! Our MC for the evening was the irrepressible Archie Maddocks, whom we’ve seen three times before doing spots at the Edinburgh Fringe (ah, Edinburgh Fringe… Où sont les neiges d’antan?) and he’s always terrific fun. He sparked off the punters in the tables closest to the stage (I say stage, I mean patch of grass) and over the course of the evening kept us entertained with his quirky observations including how he resents sharing his name with a member of the Royal Family, the behaviour of his elderly grandad, and a wonderful new take on Toy Story.

 

Lindsey SantoroOur first act was Lindsey Santoro, a new name to us, a Birmingham lass with pink hair and no inhibitions. She brims with confidence as she regales us with some terrific material, mainly about sex, including a brilliant physical performance of shenanigans in a jacuzzi. Very very funny and she got the evening off to a cracking start.

 

Ben BriggsNext up, and in a change to the advertised programme, was local comic hero Ben Briggs, whom we last saw a few months ago at the Leicester Comedy Festival (let’s hope that comes back next year but I remain doubtful at the moment!) Coaxed back to perform for us with just an hour’s notice, he admitted he was completely unprepared but his natural sense of performance and back catalogue of brilliant material still provided a very funny set of tough-delivered, heavily ironic and biting comedy. He’s in his element when bantering with the crowd and did a terrific job.

 

Ivan BrackenburyOur headline act was Tom Binns, in his alter ego as Hospital DJ supremo Ivan Brackenbury. Although he’s been around for a while and has had a number of TV appearances, we’ve never seen either Mr Binns or Mr Brackenbury before – our bad. He had us in riots of laughter from the very start with his appalling tactless mix of revealing the patients’ embarrassing conditions and then playing a totally inappropriate record for them. But it’s a much more clever – and funny – act than those bare bones might suggest. Like the ghastly love child of Timmy Mallett and Jonathan King, Brackenbury is a brilliant comic creation – totally convincing, terrifically creative, and more excruciating than Matt Hancock defending Tony Abbott. I didn’t want him to stop.

We all had a marvellous time, and, guess what, there’s another one in two weeks headed by the magnificent Paul Sinha. See you there!

Review – The Comedy Crate Comedy Night in the Garden of the Black Prince Pub, Northampton, 6th August 2020

Comedy CrateNot often I get the chance to start a piece of writing with the word “Review” nowadays, but, as we all know, gentle reader, these are strange times indeed. However, with commendable innovation and forward thinking, those clever chaps at The Comedy Crate set up a comedy night in the garden of the Black Prince last night, bringing live laughter back to the people and sticking two fingers up at the virus.

 

To be honest, we were a little nervous of how the whole thing would work. It was the first time Mrs Chrisparkle or I had been to a pub since early March, although our guests, Lord and Lady Prosecco, are already old-handers at the art of post-Covid public libation. The Black Prince has a big garden, almost completely covered by an extensive set of joined up marquees, with bench tables nicely socially distanced, and I must say it all felt pretty safe. One price for a table – £40 – and for that you could have up to six people sitting there. Your temperature was taken on arrival, with a kind of stun-gun affair, quick and effective, and fortunately we all passed with flying colours.

 

From where we sat, sightlines to where the comics performed were very good, and the sound system was excellent; everyone’s voices were just at the right volume and clarity. Plus the Black Prince has a good range of drinks – M’Lord and I knocked back the IPAs, M’lady had the Sauvignon Blanc and Mrs C enjoyed a few delicious gluten-free Wainwright beers (which are top quality in the world of gf beer!) All this and comedy too.

 

Rich WilsonWe hadn’t encountered most of the performers before. MC for the night was Rich Wilson, a lively, ebullient chap who started off with all guns blazing and never let up the energy all night. Of course, everyone came to this gig from a position of not having been involved in comedy for several months – both audience and comics alike. As a result, there was a big emphasis on Lockdown Survival as comedy material – but that works well, as it’s something we’ve all experienced and can all recognise. Mr W had lots of great observations about life during and after lockdown, but also threw in a few other gems, like his experience at working as a straight man in a gay sauna, for example. He has a terrific rapport with the audience, and was great fun all round.

 

Nathan CatonOur first act, and the only one we’d seen before, was the excellent Nathan Caton. More wry observations on Covid survival, including the pressures of having your girlfriend move in with you just before lockdown, which led to a very funny poem about dealing with said situation. Mr C makes some brilliant observations about latent racism and social distancing, and his winning personality makes his set just fly by. Seemingly effortless, but I bet it’s not.

 

Kelly ConveyNext came Kelly Convey, who was on cracking form, with her stories about being working class and therefore having relatives living in Spain, meeting the man of her dreams, her encounter with a famous sex pest and a brilliant take down of TV’s Take Me Out. She has a terrific delivery, fantastic timing with some killer punchlines and all-round excellent material. We loved her and want to see her again.

 

Garrett MillerickOur headline act was Garrett Millerick, who also came on stage frothing with energy and attack and instantly achieved a terrific rapport with us all. I absolutely loved his material about Gordon Ramsey – which was 100% spot-on – and he cleverly turns a sequence about imitating a native Mandarin speaker, which, if wrongly pitched, could be dicing with racism, into a really funny observation about the nature of language and accents. Very quick-witted and full of fun, his act was a suitable culmination to an incredibly enjoyable night, all of us celebrating having made it this far.

 

Congratulations to the Comedy Crate for setting this up – it might have been a disaster, but it was indeed a triumph, and a full house too. The future of live comedy for the foreseeable future? I think so!

So How’s it Going?

The Real ChrisparkleHow’s Lockdown treating you, gentle reader? I hope you and yours are safe and sound, exercising “common sense” (whatever that is) and minimising risks wherever possible. There’s a whole beautiful world out there, where all your friends and relatives are waiting, The Arts are waiting for a kick-start, comics are preparing a barrage of new jokes for us (or they’d better be) and there are exciting places to discover – once it’s safe again. Until then, pull up the drawbridge, log into Zoom, and catch up with your DVDs and books.

Agatha ChristieI say “books” – as though that was a thing. I don’t know about you, but since Lockdown I have not been able to concentrate on reading AT ALL. I’m too easily distracted, I read a paragraph and instantly forget what I read. So for the moment, my Agatha Christie Challenge and Paul Berna Challenge are on hold until my reading Mojo comes back.

Just a little wine for the eventMrs Chrisparkle has discovered cooking! Who knew that there were other items of kitchen equipment apart from the microwave? So that’s great news. And fortunately, fine food always deserves a fine wine – that’s a bonus. As a downside, The Real Chrisparkle’s Facebook page has fallen foul of some odd computer hiccup and I can’t access it at all. So if you check that page every so often – I wouldn’t bother, nothing’s going to be happening there for some time, I fear.

Typical Eurovision Mayhem

Now that the Eurovision that never was is over, I need to find something else to write about. What I’m proposing, gentle reader, are alternate blog posts where I share some holiday snaps from the great places we’ve been to over the last [redacted] years, and retro theatre posts where I go back over all the shows I’ve seen in [also redacted] years of theatregoing. Not promising anything truly exciting or revealing; we’ll just see how it goes.

So, see you tomorrow with some holiday snaps from Buenos Aires. Take care!

Review – Josie Long: Tender, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th March 2020

Josie LongJosie Long? Isn’t she the one in Whose Line is it Anyway, asked my friend the Crown Prince of Bedford. Errr…no. That’s Josie Lawrence. It’s very easy to get your Josies mixed up. But, when pushed, I couldn’t elucidate further as to who Josie Long really is either. But now I know. Josie Long won the BBC New Comedy Awards at the age of 17, has a degree in English from Oxford University (me too!) and has done loads of stuff at the Edinburgh fringe ever since. However, recently her comedy career has taken a side-swipe, as she and her partner have had a little girl. From a simple pregnancy, much comedy lies ahead…

Josie LongTender is all about her discovery, in her mid-30s, of the joys of motherhood. I use the word joys inadvisedly, because the poor woman is absolutely knackered, frustrated, jealous of other people’s freedom – but she also wouldn’t have it any other way. Motherhood also cannot mask the real Josie Long who’s bubbling just under the surface – the left-wing activist who hasn’t lost her political affiliations and reasonings – and it’s a delight when, every so often, she cannot control flashing out an anti-governmental diatribe. Maybe pregnancy and politics do mix after all.

Ms Long is a comedy dream because she has such an engaging personality, a wonderfully confiding nature, and, you sense, a genuine interest in the wellbeing of her audience and a desire that we all have a good time. And she very much succeeds at this, with a show sculpted from a seemingly endless account of all the things that are wrong with motherhood, the country, the world, and especially fighting Climate Change, which is the other thing that keeps her going.

Meticulously scripted (the clip from the show that was part of the promotional material on the theatre website was absolutely word-for-word identical to the same sequence on Sunday night’s performance) although it doesn’t feel it, keeping up a lovely rapport with the audience, and with genuinely funny material throughout, this show is pure gold. Her UK tour continues into June and I couldn’t recommend her more strongly!

Five Alive, let Comedy thrive!

Review – Stewart Lee, Snowflake/Tornado, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th March 2020

Stewart LeeWe saw Stewart Lee seven years ago with his Much a-Stew About Nothing tour, and I really admired (and found hysterical) his unique style of deconstructing a show and turning it in on itself. I also noted his no-holds-barred stance of calling out any audience member who dares to check their phone… more of which later.  So when I saw he was touring again it was a no-brainer to book.

Snowflake and Tornado are (allegedly) two one hour shows that have been put together for the purposes of this tour, but they dovetail together so completely that they do indeed create one night of content. Tornado comes first – originating from a misdescription of his Netflix show that stayed online for two years; the description given was actually for the comic-schlock horror movie Sharknado, which gives Mr Lee lots of scope for imagining how the two could be combined, and it’s very clever stuff. Somehow into this madness he manages to involve Alan Bennett, in a brilliant scene where he re-imagines a Sharknado attack in a suburban Bennett semi, populated by typical Bennett pensioners. It’s a terrific flight of fancy, and, with Mr Lee’s disturbingly accurate impersonation of the Yorkshire National Treasure himself, was the absolute highlight of the evening.

Snowflake centres on Mr Lee’s doubt as to where he now fits in the comedy scene, given the country’s shift towards the right, which he perceives has made popular comedy shallower and much more of a sham commodity. Again, there is loads of excellent and cunning material, including an Enid Blyton parody and stabs at figures such as Tony Parsons and Ricky Gervais.

Stewart LeeHowever, this gig went seriously wrong for me. From the start I sensed that Mr Lee was much more aggressive than I remembered him. To be fair, the show started unfortunately, as there was obviously a mix-up with tickets held by some audience members that an usher was trying to sort out when Mr Lee walked on stage. He ignored their kerfuffle, but then when another lot of people came in late, he targeted them with total vitriol. It’s a well-worn trick with comedians over the decades to pick on latecomers, but I’ve never seen it done so nastily as by Mr Lee. I understand that is part of his stage persona, but you can go too far.

As the show developed, he called out another audience member for using their phone. “I was just checking that it was turned off” was his explanation; I’ve no way of knowing whether that was true. Then a few minutes later Mr Lee shouted again “TURN THAT PHONE OFF!!!” and I realised he was looking at me. I hadn’t touched my phone, so I looked blankly. “YOU! WITH THE GLASSES!” It was like that moment at school when you were picked on by the vicious teacher for something one of your classmates had done. Mrs Chrisparkle quietly muttered that it might have been my Apple Watch that had turned itself into life. “IS IT YOUR WATCH? DON’T MOVE IT THEN!!” he roared. “SORRY!” I replied, in a not sorry way, more in a Pardon Me for Breathing sort of way. Fortunately, he dropped the conversation then, because if he’d said anything more, I could feel the sarcasm rising within my breath. It wouldn’t have ended well. I would have been ridiculed, felt ashamed, and probably walked out. It would have been an ugly and very non-comedic moment.

But from then on, he lost me. Not only was I concerned about keeping my arm and hand absolutely still lest I offended His Majesty again, but I was also fed up with his whole approach. Look, I am experienced at seeing comedy shows. I get the idea of ridiculing the audience – a bit. But he took it to the nth degree. It reminded me of how James Acaster changed his style to become mean to the audience – and it simply alienates me. You don’t pay good money to be insulted. Moreover, on a few occasions he either lost his way in his act or pretended that he had lost his way, and then heaped all the blame on the audience for putting him off. And the more I sat there, not exactly fuming but with my critical facilities prickling, my main reaction was that I don’t need this kind of stuff in my life.

Stewart Lee againSomething else that completely spoils this show is his constant dissing of other performers. Yes, I understand that he ridicules the society that laps up Ricky Gervais’ style, and sees Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the ultimate innovator, as if no one had ever broken the fourth wall before. But when he lays it on with a trowel, it’s just too much. It’s rancorous, bitter and also feels a bit jealous. There’s an intensely tedious moment where Mr Lee ridicules the concept that Ricky Gervais “says the unsayable” by taking it literally. If he said the unsayable, the noise would come out like “ehh…eeee….cchchchchch…” etc. Point taken. Five minutes later, and he’s still making those childish noises? Most people around me were looking bored as hell. Mrs C had long nodded off – that’s her reaction to stage aggression. Mr Lee takes an idea and then batters it to death. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

But by concentrating so heavily on ridiculing other comics, their audiences and his own audience, the evening was just swimming in negative energy, and, frankly, I couldn’t wait for it to end. It’s a shame – Mr Lee is so creative and talented, is a master of the callback and the shaggy dog story, and makes relevant and insightful points to prick pomposity and hypocrisy. But, on the whole, that was an awful night at the theatre. Perhaps I just didn’t get it; perhaps I did and it was a lousy performance. As it’s Stewart Lee, I couldn’t possibly give him one star, there’s too much good content for that. Thank heavens for the Alan Bennett sequence.

Two disappointing for more

Review – John Bishop: Warm Up, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd March 2020

John Bishop Warm UpIt’s not often that a Work in Progress show fills the massive Derngate auditorium, but then again, it’s not often that the great John Bishop comes to town. Actually, to my knowledge, it’s at least the second time he’s come to town. The first time we saw him, he was so late, he offered to buy the entire audience a drink. Even though that was in the smaller Royal theatre, it still must have cost him a bob or two. Forewarned is forearmed this time.

Barry DoddsBut first, a support act. Remembering that Mr Bishop didn’t have a support act when we last saw him, I was surprised that there was one this time. But indeed there was, in the jovial form of Barry Dodds, a Geordie from Gateshead (I thought Geordies could only come from north of the Tyne? Controversial!) full of appropriate apologies for not being John Bishop, but with a ton of fun material of his own. He has a great story about how he fooled a flatmate who liked to dabble with wacky baccy (and worse) – and it’s a good trick: put a bar of Palmolive soap in the microwave and watch it expand. It plays with the most balanced of brains, but when you’ve been on the illegal substances it can fair blow your mind.

I also really enjoyed his account of why he and his wife split up, and his rather gruesome but extremely funny story of what trainee doctors can get up to in the mortuary. Mr Dodds is a naturally funny guy with great timing and a comfortable confidence, and his short set was, truly, all too short. We’d love to see him do a longer set sometime.

John BishopAfter the interval, Mr Bishop wandered on, cup of Yorkshire Tea in hand, apologising for the fact that as this show was indeed work in progress, some of it might be a bit shit. And, really odd for a WIP show, it’s not going to be leading on to a big arena show later in the year – he had intended to do that, but then the plans got altered and the arena show has been postponed. But the WIP shows had already gone on sale, so Mr B felt obliged to give us some WIP comedy, even without a big show in the offing. You couldn’t make it up.

John BHe is the absolute master of relaxed, slow storytelling, every routine always having a killer punch at the end. He is so engaging, and confiding, that you feel like you are the only person he’s sharing these brilliant observations with, maybe over a convivial pint somewhere. He talks about things that we can all recognise, such as the compromises in relationships or how your attitudes change as you get older. One of his assertions, absolutely correct, is that men never change from the age when they meet each other. Whereas women develop and grow their friendships over the years, men always remain essentially kids; if they met when they were at school, then they’re still schoolkids when meet decades later.

John-BishopAnother absolutely spot-on observation is how a middle-aged man suddenly gets transported into a world of sexual and/or romantic fantasy if a woman talks to him nicely. You can just be on a flight and offered a drink by an air hostess and a world of possibilities opens up to you. I also loved his material about being the only Scouser on the ski slopes, his experiences of acting a sex scene (or not) with Sheridan Smith, and a brilliant sequence speculating about sex between the over 70s. He had us all in cascades of laughter.

He says he has one joke; and it’s the same joke he told last time he was here – but, to be fair, it is awfully funny. It’s the one about the accidental penectomy and the replacement surgery. If you know it, you know it. If you don’t, well I’m not going to tell you. During the course of the evening, he chatted with a couple of audience members who had earlier piped up for whatever reason; and, as with his last appearance here, he ended the show with a brief Q&A session. I mention that because the last question he was asked included a callback to an earlier piece of material, and Mr B’s answer included a callback to something another audience member had said – and it was a masterstroke. No wonder he called the show to halt at that point – it could never get better.

A great night of comedy and an absolute privilege to see a master of the art at work. His tour continues throughout the rest of the year, but many venues are already sold out. This comes as no surprise at all. Just brilliant.

Five alive, let comedy thrive!

Review – A weekend at the Leicester Comedy Festival, 22nd – 23rd February 2020

leicester-comedy-festival-logoThis 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

Andy BarrThis 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

 

Ali BriceAlthough 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

Stuart GoldsmithAnd 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

Robin MorganWe’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

Friz FrizzleDid 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

Mark and HaydnI’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

Ben BriggsWe’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

Kevin PreciousHaving 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

Matt GreenFor 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!

Review – John Archer, Against the Odds, Underground at the Derngate, 21st February 2020

John Archer Against the OddsAs a prelude to what we hoped would be a weekend of riotous laughter at the Leicester Comedy Festival (more of which soon), Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by our friends the Squire of Sidcup and the Wise Woman of Wembley for dinner, drinks and an evening in the company of comedy magician John Archer. Mr Archer was recently on Britain’s Got Talent (apparently – we’re never in to see it.) However, clearly a lot of the good burghers of Northampton had watched his appearance because when we arrived twenty minutes before the show was due to start (normally plenty of time to get a good seat) we had to make do with the back row. Not a great position from which to observe close-up magic.

J ArcherHowever, that’s not really Mr A’s style – you didn’t need to be in the front few rows to watch any sneaky dexterity. Most of his magical feats were mind-based; predicting the numbers that people would choose to create a fantasy lottery ticket, for example, or which card from a selection, all bearing different words on them that an audience member would pick unseen. There was yet another very clever trick where he had £80 in an envelope, with four other worthless envelopes, and he manage to convince audience members to pick all the other envelopes except the one with the dosh.

John ArcherBut he’s not just a fantastic magician. He has a lovely, gentle comedy style – self-deprecating, whacking out short silly songs on a ukulele; playing slightly on the fact that he won’t see 55 again but there’s definitely life in this old dog yet. An intriguing and impressive act; there’s no way that you’ll work out how he performs those feats of magical intellect – and to preserve the mystery I’d really rather not know anyway. No gimmicks, no pyrotechnics; just good old-fashioned entertainment. Nothing more to add! John Archer is touring his Against the Odds show in various venues around the country between now and May. Very enjoyable!

4-starsFour he’s a jolly good fellow!