Review – Russell Kane, Smallness, Warwick Arts Centre, 9th February 2014

Russell Kane - SmallnessRussell Kane is yet another of these BBC3-type comics with whom we’re not that familiar but thought we’d risk paying to see them live; although he was not completely new to us as he co-presented the rather good “How to Win Eurovision” show on TV last year. So we suspected we would like him, but we weren’t sure.

Omar HamdiHowever, before we got to meet Mr Kane there was a support act in the form of Omar Hamdi, a young Welsh-Egyptian comic, who, unsurprisingly, traded somewhat on his unusual background, but still had a lot of entertaining material about culture clashes and some good general observational comedy. I thought once or twice he trod a delicate line where he almost invited the audience to (as Avenue Q would have it) “be a little bit racist”; but he knew what he was doing and it was all good-natured stuff. Part of his “warm-up” job is to find out if there were any overseas members of the audience – which information would be taken up by Russell Kane after the interval and woven into his act. Sadly, we only had a Mexican and a Belgian – I think they were hoping for more. I was going to suggest Mrs Chrisparkle put her hand up but she hasn’t lived in Australia for 27 years, so I thought it might be stretching a point. Plus she would have killed me.

After Mr Hamdi’s 25 minutes, we had an ice-cream-fuelled interval (I was driving, after all) and then awaited Mr Kane. What a little powerhouse of fun and energy he is. He’s one of these comics who never stays still for a second – always pacing about, doing balletic twirls, lunging and jigging. When Michael McIntyre does that it really gets on my nerves because it looks unnatural; but when Russell Kane does it, it’s so intrinsically him that you guess he just can’t stop – it must be his body’s way of releasing some amazing amount of pent-up energy inside. In his skin tight black leggings (it’s not a great look, to be honest) he reminded me of a young Max Wall, not that he really incorporates silly walks as a part of his act, they just happen incidentally.

Not standing stillThere’s also an interesting duality to his persona. Whilst he looks and acts quite camp, and his usual speaking voice is rather soft and gentle, there is also an underlying air of ruffian to him, which surfaces when he’s imitating working-class London/Essex guys (which he does a lot). He talks a bit about his background, and that his father was a bouncer and by all accounts quite a hard man, and you can see he’s inherited streaks of that in his personality. So that soft/rough combination gives him a really fascinating edge. You sense he’s the kind of guy who is at ease talking to all people – any background, any class – which is definitely a gift when it comes to having a great rapport with the audience.

The theme of this tour is “Smallness”, although to be honest I’m not sure it’s that strict a theme, more like a general framework on to which to hang some (but not much) of his material. “What is it with us Brits and smallness?” is the question he poses. “Watch him ejaculate (his words not mine) thoughts about smallness; on keeping things small when life gets big.” I’m glad he doesn’t allow his material to be constrained just to this theme though, because his natural enthusiasm for taking a subject and running away with it makes him one of the funniest comics we’ve ever seen.

Russell KaneHe can so easily identify that moment of recognition with the comic potential of an ordinary everyday situation. For example, what other nation’s population, when they hear a glass being broken in a restaurant or bar, would deem it appropriate to shout out “W**ker!” with the appropriate hand gestures. The French? “Eet ees unlikely”. The Germans? “Vy do zay do dat?” Nope, just the Brits. The Mexican and Belgian in the audience agreed that when they go on holiday abroad and they overhear another group of Mexicans or Belgians talking, they would go up to them, introduce themselves, and have a nice holiday chat. The Brits would do the complete opposite – “oh my God, they’re British, don’t talk to them, don’t make eye contact, run away…” When you go up to an American and ask them what they think of their home town, the inevitable answer is that it’s “awesome!” (Or rather, “ossom!”) Do that to a Brit, and they’ll say “it’s sh*t”. Unless you’re in Manchester, of course. He has lots of excellent Manchester material, much of it centred on his Mancunienne fiancé and her strangulated accent.

R KaneBut it’s not only these international observations where he excels. He’s great at noticing those little things that really irritate in relationships: like Group A sleepers, who can nod off anywhere anytime, get a full ten hours and awake all refreshed and bunny-like; and Group B sleepers, who snatch a few moment here and there, toss and turn all night and wake up knackered. How many Group B sleepers are there in the audience? I put my hand up. How many of you are sleeping with a Group A sleeper? I kept it up. All manner of Group A/B couples then had a laugh at each other’s expense. Then there’s material about not being able to have sex in the morning, or not being able to have sex whilst body noises are emitting… and much more. Whilst the subject matter of his comedy is not exactly ground-breaking his delivery and accuracy of observation is absolutely top notch.

He certainly gave us good value, as he was on for very nearly two hours, and we barely stopped laughing all that time. We loved it, he’s now one of our absolute favourites. His tour goes on up and down the country until May, and I would definitely recommend him!

Review – Dara O’Briain: Craic Dealer, Warwick Arts Centre, 25th April 2012

Dara O'BriainWe’ve seen Dara O’Briain on TV a few times, doing a little bit of stand-up, but primarily presenting “The Apprentice – You’re Fired”, where he has a very wholesome blend of gentle teasing and intelligent badinage. We’d not seen him live before though. My guess was that as a stand-up he would be very quick of brain and strong of material.

And I was right. What I wasn’t aware was that, as a big man, he can command a large and rather soulless venue like the stage of the Butterworth Hall at the Warwick Arts Centre and treat it as though it were as intimate as his living room. Wednesday night’s gig was part of his Craic Dealer tour, and I think he sold out all three nights within a very short time.

Another Dara O'Briain pictureWith no support act, and the show lasting for two and a quarter hours, including a twenty minute interval, he needs no props, apart from a gift bag of crisps that he shares out at the end of the show to the people who contributed the most. He’s very funny, as you would expect, and I like his straightforward way of telling a story – no need for stylistic embellishments, he lets his material do the talking – and as it’s very good material, it works.

For someone who is such a good talker, he must also be a really good listener too; as the information he gleans from the punters at the front whom he interrogates in the first half, constantly comes back as references in the second half, when you’re really not expecting them; and not just repetitiously – he sneaks references in when you think he’s going in a completely different direction. Very creatively done.

Amongst last night’s subjects were how to most terrify a burglar in your home, the level of expertise of current Irish construction workers, how not to take a photo when someone gives you their camera and how the singer Plan B might have got his name.

Look it's Dara O'Briain againI think he has something of the Frankie Howerd to his style – not Howerd’s camp mannerisms or his oohs and aahs, but in his way of addressing the audience as a whole in a confidential way, making them feel they’re the only one he’s talking to – and also by rounding on the audience when they vocally disapprove of any his dodgier topics.

But what you come away with is a distinct impression of someone with a fairly massive brain (not big headed though), an amazing way of dealing with people and a provider of top quality comic material in a fast and fluid way. A really enjoyable night out!

Review – The Government Inspector, Warwick Arts Centre, 28th May 2011

Warwick Arts CentreIt’s been a sin of omission on my part that I have never visited the Warwick Arts Centre before last Saturday. Its reputation as a home for challenging theatre was made early on in its life in the 1970s, so I’m delighted to have finally found it and will be checking religiously for new shows to see there. I recommend it – the sightlines are excellent, the sound is clear and the seats are comfortable. The ice-creams were tasty but I wasn’t that keen on the cafeteria aspect of the bar areas. It’s definitely more functional than sophisticated.

I also have a great fondness for the Young Vic, where I saw some pretty sensational stuff in the 1970s and early 80s, and so it was with eagerness that I booked for us to see “The Government Inspector”, being a Warwick Arts Centre – Young Vic co-production.

Government Inspector Gogol’s 1836 play is a satire on corruption and greed. It’s a terribly simple plot. An inspector is to arrive incognito in some backwater Russian town and the mayor and notables are terrified that their corrupt inefficiencies will get discovered. They assume a new man in town is the inspector and so, as they are used to receiving bribes, they give him bribes to smooth the waters. Of course, he isn’t the inspector but a waster with a gambling addict, so he is pleased to receive their money and take advantage of the townswomen to boot. At the end, he leaves scot-free with all the cash, and the locals, much poorer, still await the horror of the real government inspection.

I’ve not seen or read this play before, but I understand it that it is often presented with an eye to the surreal. That’s certainly the tack taken by director Richard Jones in what I felt was a pretty woeful production.

Let’s start with the set. Stage right you have the Mayor’s living room, taking up the majority of the usable area. Stage left you have another room, at times the mayor’s wife’s boudoir, their guest room, the room at the inn, or an interrogation room-cum-torture chamber. Fair enough. My opinon is, having established those boundaries, stick with it. But for the final scene the mayor’s front room just extends and takes over the other stage area, oblivious of its previous segregation and because of the other area’s different flooring and decoration, it just looks and feels wrong. On another occasion, when Khlestakov, the non-inspector, was sleeping on the floor in the guest room area, his feet distinctly broke through the imaginary wall and ended up in the mayor’s parlour area. Sloppy, I thought; no real respect given to the staging.

Secondly, the vision of the play is inconsistent regarding its era. Whilst the majority of the time it appears to be fully 1830s as far as costume, scenery and props are concerned, in the final scene, all the guests have helium balloons. Not sure that’s entirely right.

And then you have the stage effects. In order (presumably) to give an impression of the mayor’s tormented mind, they project the moving word “incognito” on to the walls in a spooky sort of way. And rats appear at the door and along the picture rail too. The trouble is the rats are laughable. They look for all the world like the ones that they didn’t make earlier on Blue Peter. Visually, it came across as very cheap and amateur. There’s one scene change moment when – for some reason – all the stagehands and actors who are moving scenery come on wearing bird masks and other surreal costumes. There was no artistry to those costumes; they look like they were just chucked on higgledy-piggledy. They were tawdry and it was embarrassing. Plus it was accompanied by a ridiculously loud, off-putting, indescribable and headache-inducing sound effect.

Oh my God those sound effects. I can only guess they were meant to enhance certain aspects of the play for the hard of understanding. When Khlestakov is sitting on one chair and the mayor’s daughter is on another, he draws the chair close to her as a visual sign of pursuing her. She pulls her chair away from him. He follows her again, she pulls away again, and so on. This takes place on carpet. Yet the scene is “improved” by having a chair scraping sound effect whenever the chairs move. It makes the whole thing so unsubtle. At other times, there is music in the background which ends with an old-fashioned “stylus being dragged across a record” sound effect. Not quite sure what it was meant to signify, but by the sixth or seventh time I’d heard it I wanted to smash the record over the director’s head. It was an overdose of inanity.

Julian BarrattOn the whole the performances themselves were not bad. Julian Barratt plays the Mayor, and as I have never seen The Mighty Boosh, I had no preconceived ideas about what he would be like. On the whole I enjoyed his performance; I liked his facial expressions, and I thought he conveyed the mayor’s tortured angst pretty well. My main concern was that he spoke in a monotone nearly all the time. I wouldn’t say he actually sounded monotonous, but he kept exactly the same vocal cadences for when he was talking to his family, buttering up the soi-disant inspector, dealing with the other worthies of the town or interrogating the dissident shopkeeper. It lacked variation.

Doon MacKichanDoon Mackichan, for whom I have a lot of time , played his wife. A naturally comic personality, she was great vamping up to the inspector and trying to out-sexy her daughter in his affections. For me the stage certainly brightened up whenever she appeared.Kyle Soller Kyle Soller was Khlestakov; we saw him as the eponymous Talented Mr Rigby last year, where I didn’t entirely believe his charisma, but this time I found him more convincing. Basically Khlestakov is a show-off fop, camping it up around the stage and taking advantage of everyone, and he did it fine.

I can’t help but think, though, that instead of this downright weird presentation, it would have been much more telling if it had been played more straight and serious. I would have thought you could really demonstrate the scale of the corruption and foolishness of the townspeople and make Khlestakov more of a threatening and manipulative presence if they’d taken away all the gimmicks and left the text. What are now mere cartoon characters could become real people instead. This would also have meant the impact of the final realisation by the townspeople that they had been fooled would have been more devastating. As it is, the ending has all the force of being kicked in the shins by a dormouse.

There was a theme of repetition too: characters repeating the same short speeches ad nauseam to very little dramatic effect. God it was tedious. No wonder it felt like the show runs for several hours. I think I should stop now before I think of other aspects of the show that irritated me.

It’s an excellent play, but it’s a production that tries too hard to be clever, relies too heavily on artificial effects and offers too much caricature instead of characterisation to warrant the ticket price, I’m sorry to say.