As 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.
Our 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.
We’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.
Next 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.
Headlining 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!
It 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.
Our 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.
Our 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.
Second 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.
Our 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!
As 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.
Things 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.
Our 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.
Next 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.
Our 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!
Not 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.
We 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.
Our 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.
Next 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.
Our 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!
If someone mentions Charlie Chaplin then you get an instant image in your head – a grainy black and white picture of a little guy in an ill-fitting suit, bandy-legged, twirling a cane. Similarly, if you think of Stan Laurel, you imagine a tall weedy-looking chap, intellectually challenged, scratching his hair perplexedly, and almost certainly in the company of the tubby and smug Oliver Hardy. Apart from the era in which they did their best work, you wouldn’t necessarily put the two together. But that’s the basis of this production from Told by an Idiot, co-produced by the Royal and Derngate amongst others.
Who knew that Chaplin and Laurel were on the same ship that sailed to America to join slapstick impresario Fred Karno’s successful troupe of comic performers, a journey that would change their lives for ever and would shape the direction of film comedy for decades? (Everyone put your hands down, that was meant to be rhetorical.) The show is set on their high seas journey to America, interspersed with re-enacted scenes from both the star performers’ lives. Chaplin’s poverty-stricken early days, Laurel’s initial meeting with Hardy (that comedy golf routine was probably the highlight of the show for me), their later-in-life reunion, and so on, are all acted out in little vignettes. There’s no sense of chronological narration to these scenes – they (presumably deliberately) follow each other in a haphazard order, some with great significance to their lives and careers, others less so.
The production is co-commissioned by the London International Mime Festival, and it’s fascinating to see an entire piece (90 minutes, no interval) performed almost entirely without speech (Chaplin’s drunken dad gets to sing a couple of songs), although the words on the projected screen – cleverly recalling how they got around the issue in the days of the silent screen – provide something of a communication get-out clause. Of course, Tape-Face (or whatever he is called at the moment) can do it – including getting members of the audience up on to the stage without uttering a syllable. The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel also has a couple of entertaining audience participation moments, so do beware if you sit at the front.
The performances are all strong; Amalia Vitale gives a tremendous performance as Chaplin, every inch (despite their being not many of them) the clown, impersonating his gait and silently eloquent facial expressions down to a tee. Jerone Marsh-Reid, on the other hand, whilst delightfully suggesting Laurel’s imbecilic charm, doesn’t look remotely like him, which creates a strange sense of imbalance. This is also emphasised by Nick Haverson’s excellent visual impression of Hardy (amongst other roles), but of course that’s not Mr Marsh-Reid’s fault at all. Sara Alexander is the fourth member of the company, spending most of her time keeping pace with the action on her plinky-plonky piano, which works very well.
If you’re sensing a slight lack of enthusiasm on my part, gentle reader, there’s a reason for that. Whilst I could appreciate the skill, the creativity, the charm, and the cleverness of this production and its performers, it didn’t move me in the slightest. Perhaps I was expecting something different – maybe something along the lines of the simple storytelling of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. There were moments in some of the scenes in The Strange Tale (not that it’s remotely strange, btw) where I didn’t fully understand the storytelling. Nor did the chatty people behind us, as we occasionally overheard. I’m also not convinced that the ship setting – nicely realised though it was – helped the show much; I felt it constrained it more than liberated it. The random nature of the acted-out scenes slightly irritated me too; although it was all done in the most charming way, to me it generally lacked focus.
I must tell you that although she stayed awake – a good sign – Mrs Chrisparkle was bored throughout. I wasn’t, but I confess I did keep looking at my watch. I hoped for more laughs, more emotion, more je ne sais quoi. But then I never did care for Chaplin much; Keaton was much funnier. The audience reaction at the end was more respectful than ecstatic, which strikes me as spot-on; I absolutely respect the skills and artistry of the performers, but, for the most part, was a little disappointed in what this show asked them to do.
Everybody’s been Talking About Jamie since it hit (and I mean hit) the Sheffield Crucible back in 2017. I’d heard great things about it but couldn’t fit it in to our busy schedules. However, we did see it in London in December 2017 and absolutely loved it. Since then it’s gone from strength to strength and is currently touring the UK until August whilst continuing to pack them in at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. Touring, whilst retaining its West End presence, is something that normally only the big boys of musical theatre can achieve, which means that Jamie is now officially a Big Boy of Musical Theatre.
You’ll know the story of course, but in brief: Sheffield-based Jamie New (based on the real-life Jamie Campbell) is coming up to his 16th birthday. He knows – and everyone knows – that he’s gay; what they don’t know is his secret ambition to become a drag queen. Fortunately, his mum Margaret, and her best friend Ray support him completely in his quest to be The Real Jamie. However, there are drawbacks. His dad simply can’t accept his son’s sexuality, let alone his ostentatious appearance. His school arch-enemy, the bully Dean, does everything he can to scupper Jamie’s lifestyle. Even careers adviser, Miss Hedge, wants him to be a fork-lift truck driver – I think it’s fair to say she doesn’t entirely have the measure of him. The school prom is looming; will Jamie manage to realise his dream of attending the prom in a dress (and not just any old dress), or will the powers that be oppress him back into a gender-stereotypical conservative outfit that won’t offend the other school parents?
The loving heart of this show is its message of acceptance and encouragement to be yourself – don’t give in to bullies and don’t be persuaded that you can’t realise your dream. None of these big ideas are forced or heavily delivered; it all flows lightly and naturally from the very believable characters. There’s nothing didactic or preachy about Everybody’s Talking about Jamie; it’s just school life (which we all recognise or remember), parent- and teacher-management which is an art we all (hopefully) develop, confronting down your bullies, and emerging shining at the end. And if you want to do it in a fabulous dress then no one’s gonna stop you.
There are so many positives about the show, and this current touring production. Dan Gillespie Sells’ and Tom MacRae’s songs are still fresh, funny, telling and memorable; the book is witty, emotional in all the right places, and is populated with some great characters. Benjamin Holder’s band whack out the numbers with showbizzy panache, and Kate Prince’s choreography is lively, fun, and calls for some great set piece routines that knock your socks off.
And then there are the performances. When I saw John McCrea play Jamie in London, I couldn’t imagine how it could be bettered; but this tour stars Layton Williams as Jamie and so I have to think again. I first saw Mr Williams in the New Adventures’ Lord of the Flies six years ago when you could already see he was a star in the making. He was superb in the ensemble of Hairspray the following year, and then he was a brilliant Paul in Kiss Me Kate at Sheffield – his Too Darn Hot dance had to be seen to be believed. No surprise that he absolutely owns both the stage and the role as Jamie; it’s a perfect opportunity for his dance, acting and comedic skills to come to the fore. Supremely confident and skilful; it’s a great performance.
I also loved Shane Richie as Hugo, the tired, disillusioned ex-performer who brings his drag creation Loco Chanelle out of retirement in order to encourage Jamie into doing what he wants. I had no idea he could sing and dance so impressively! There’s terrific support from Lara Denning as Miss Hedge, and Shobna Gulati as Ray, and George Sampson makes an excellent villain in the form of Dean, exuding nastiness from every pore. Garry Lee, JP McCue and Rhys Taylor form a great triumvirate of drag queens, a mixture of faded glamour and gruff mateyness. Sharan Phull is superb in the fascinating and assertive role of Jamie’s bestie Pritti, and the ensemble of school students gives us some stunning song and dance routines – a true joy to watch. But Amy Ellen Richardson as Margaret brings the house down with her moving and powerful rendition of He’s My Boy, which stops us all in our tracks and can coax a tear out of the most hard-hearted audience member.
Everybody’s Talking about Jamie – and he and his show will be the talk of the town for the rest of the week. A brilliant portrayal of the power of the individual, this one’s never going to go away. A must-see!
P. S. I (briefly) met the real Jamie at last year’s West End Eurovision. He was wearing a headdress that almost touched the ceiling. I think he’s overcoming his shyness.
P. P. S. Writer Tom MacRae, who comes from Northampton, was in the Press Night audience – and Layton Williams invited him on to the stage to give a charming but empowering short speech about realising your dreams. Good man yourself, Mr MacRae!
Josie 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…
Tender 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!
We 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.
However, 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.
Something 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.
It’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.
But 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.
After 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.
He 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.
Another 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.
Unlike most Brits, Mrs Chrisparkle and I had the pleasure (we’ll come back to that word) of seeing Curtains before its current UK tour, when we caught it at the Al Hirschfield Theater in New York in 2008 – I know, so cosmopolitan. I remember it reasonably fondly; Mrs C less so, and she took some convincing to see this first major British production. I recall I was perplexed at the time that the Broadway production didn’t transfer to the West End. With the benefit of hindsight, I think I understand why.
Curtains comes with a massive pedigree: primarily its composer and lyricist, Kander and Ebb, whose back-catalogue shines with highlights such as Cabaret and Chicago, as well as The Scottsboro Boys, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and the movie Funny Lady. Fred Ebb died whilst writing Curtains, as did book writer Peter Stone, so Rupert Holmes (he of The Pina Colada Song, Him, and The Mystery of Edwin Drooooood) stepped in to complete the task. Nevertheless, all of us can have our off days, and, musically, you can’t deny that Curtains is a severe disappointment. No memorable songs, no songs that have taken a life of their own outside the show, no great tunes. We all know people who say, that whilst they like “the theatre”, they can’t stand musicals. To my mind, musicals are an incredibly versatile art form, capable of creating sheer magic on a stage, exploring characters, revealing truths, deconstructing dilemmas in their own unique way. However, Curtains is the kind of musical that people who hate musicals think all musicals are like. If this was the first musical I’d ever seen, I’d dismiss the genre as kinda woeful.
The trouble with Curtains is (and I’m talking about the bare bones of the show here, not this production) that it’s trying to be a number of things but fails at them all. It wants to be taken as a serious musical in its own right, but the songs simply aren’t up to it – in fact this is far and away the worst score by Kander and Ebb that I have come across. It wants to be a comedy whodunit, but it completely lacks suspense. In its attempt to parody/pastiche landmark musicals like Oklahoma! or Finian’s Rainbow, it concentrates on their trademark scenes, such as big hoedown stomps or dream ballet sequences, but, taken out of the context of their original shows, they just slow down the natural development of this show. It also makes the show feel immensely dated. Whereas in Cabaret and Chicago the music and the style instantly gives you a time-setting without having to spell it out, you forget that Curtains is meant to be set in 1950s Boston, primarily because there’s no obvious reason for it. Musicals and murder are timeless, so why isn’t this?
Chrisparkle’s first law of musical theatre is that each song should progress either the plot or our understanding of the characters, or at least the general setting of the show. There’s nothing more frustrating than a stop-start musical where the story takes a break each time an ensemble assembles to sing something. Unfortunately, so many of the numbers in Curtains consist of the audience passively viewing the performance (or rehearsal) from another show (in this case the fictional Robbin’ Hood) which have no meaning or significance for us the audience. Take, for example, the lengthy Thataway that closes the first Act; it’s all bluster and no content, a very repetitive tune that never soars even when you think it might. It’s just an excuse for some swirling skirts and cowboy high-kickin’ (which, to be fair, the cast perform extremely well). But there’s no drama to it, no character development, nothing with which to lead you into the interval with a greater understanding of what’s going on.
Talking of intervals, it didn’t help that, technically, the performance was a bit of a disaster. The interval climax big effect, where murder victim #2 is found suspended noose-first from the curtains, simply didn’t happen. The characters told us all to “look up there” (or words to that effect) but there was nothing happening “up there”. Then, after Jason Manford’s Cioffi yelled “blackout!” to signify the end of the Act, the curtain fell, only to part rise again to reveal what looked like a degree of backstage consternation at the fact that the effect hadn’t worked. First night in a new theatre, yes, sometimes things go wrong. It happens.
Surely there were some good things? Yes indeed. Let’s start at the top with Mr Manford. I’ve not seen him in a musical before, and I thought he was excellent. The characterisation of musical-loving Detective Cioffi, hankering romantically after the ingénue Niki Harris, fanboying the writers and the director, worked extremely well. The Broadway production we saw starred David Hyde Pierce in the same role and he camped it up rotten. Jason Manford’s performance, however, was much more nuanced, more considered and more believable. And of course he has excellent comic timing, which he used to great effect.
Rebecca Lock also gives a fine, beefy performance as the no-nonsense, hard-nosed producer Carmen Bernstein, chucking out savage one-liners whilst belting out her numbers; think Ethel Merman meets Joan Rivers. It’s just a shame that her one-liners weren’t a little funnier and less predictable, but that’s not her fault. Carley Stenson looks and sounds great as Georgia Hendricks, parachuted in to play the lead role when the actress who was going to play Madame Marian suffers a terminal first-night curtain call. Ore Oduba was good, if a little clinical, as Aaron Fox, the composer, and his voice was a little under-amplified in the singing department.
There’s great support from the rest of the cast, especially Emma Caffrey as the show-off Bambi, and understudy Robin Kent who débuted the busy and important role of Bobby Pepper and did a terrific job. Capping it all, there’s a prize performance from Samuel Holmes as the flouncy director Christopher Belling, bitching his way around the stage, side-stepping blame and trouble like a slalom expert. I last saw Mr Holmes as Lord Farquaad in Shrek, where he stole the show; he really does this kind of spoilt brat incredibly well.
The other person who drags this show up by its bootstrings and does his best to redeem it, is choreographer Alistair David. An alumnus of so many brilliant lavish shows in Sheffield and Chichester, his dance routines for Curtains throughout are exciting, cheeky, and simply enjoyable. And it’s a testament to the great boys and girls of the dance team that they’re more than up to the task and make those otherwise bland set numbers watchable.
Mrs C started to nod off during Ms Stenson’s performance of Thinking of Him – nothing against Ms Stenson at all, just the fact that the plot had stopped in order for her to sing an irrelevant song, and it’s a cue to the audience to take their mind off the story and let their minds wander. I tried to pull her back to consciousness a few times during the first Act but she’d already lost interest, and was only vaguely sentient at odd moments. She experienced more of the Second Act and even laughed at Mr Holmes’ retort to Bambi: “the only thing you could arouse is suspicion” (winner of Best Line in Show). I stayed awake, but, have to admit, felt pretty bored for much of the time.
Alas, the most glittering of casts would have difficulty jump-starting this old banger of a show. After this week, the tour valiantly continues to Blackpool, Glasgow, Leicester, High Wycombe, Wolverhampton and Southampton. Go for the performances and the dancing; look away for the rest.