Comedy

Charlie and Stan

17/09/21

The Lowry, Salford Quays

Told by an Idiot’s Charlie and Stan is a charmingly whimsical piece, a musing on what might have happened when Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel first met – as cabin-mates on a steamer bound for New York, both members of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe. Fittingly, it’s a largely silent piece of theatre, reliant on mime, music and physical comedy.

The performances are as peppy as you’d expect from Told by an Idiot, and it’s a fascinating premise. There is lots of potential for silly jokes and tomfoolery, which writer/director Paul Hunter enables his ensemble cast to utilise to full advantage. The choreography (by Nuna Sandy) is sharp, and the movement (courtesy of Jos Houben) is precise, as it needs to be in a piece like this. Danielle Bird’s Chaplin is glorious, all verve and spirit, while Jerone Marsh-Reid’s Laurel personifies sweetness and likability. The piano and drum accompaniment (Sara Alexander and Nick Haverson) works well too, and I like how it’s incorporated into the action.

I am also impressed by Ioana Curelea’s set: the wonky ship’s interior and hanging bunk beds contribute to the sense of impermanence and making do.

There’s so much to admire here, and yet – for me – it doesn’t quite come off. I think it’s to do with the tech. I need lighting that directs my eye; some of the physical jokes don’t land because I don’t know where I’m supposed to be looking, and simple sound effects to underscore some of the more obscure punchlines would also be helpful. Without these guides, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the business of the stage, and I miss a lot in the mayhem.

I’m also unconvinced by the flashback and flash forward sequences. The former – depicting Chaplin’s troubled childhood – seems tonally wrong. It’s a weighty topic, but it’s depicted in exactly the same way as the rest of the piece; I feel it needs to be markedly different. The latter just seems grafted on: Haverson’s portrayal of Oliver Hardy is uncannily accurate, but the scene doesn’t fit with the rest of the story.

So, for me, this is a bit of a mixed bag. A nice idea, a pleasant way to spend an evening, and some undeniably strong performances but, in the end, a little disappointing.

3.4 stars

Susan SIngfield

Skank

18/08/21

Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh

Skank is a surprise. I’m expecting a wry look at Millennial life, and – to some extent – that’s what I get. Clementine Bogg-Hargroves plays Kate, a young woman flitting from one temping job to the next, dreaming of being a writer but hardly ever actually writing anything. She won’t commit to a ‘proper’ job because the thought of it fills her with dread. She has nothing in common with her colleagues, but they seem to like her: she’s funny and sparky, and even has a crush on one of them. But Kate’s real life happens outside the office: in trendy coffee shops and pubs; in too much booze and one-night-stands; in knitting classes and doctor’s appointments.

Ah yes. Doctor’s appointments. Because this isn’t, it turns out, as light as it first seems. It’s a clever realisation of how people conceal their mental health problems. No one in the office can possibly have a clue about how anxious Kate is, all the time, of what her upbeat humour hides. As the play progresses, we see Kate unravel, all the while maintaining that same bubbly persona.

A smear test is the catalyst. An abnormality sends Kate spiralling, her tinnitus is out of control and she doesn’t know what to do. And why is it so bloody hard to recycle a baked beans tin around here?

Bogg-Hargroves truly inhabits the part, which makes sense, as it’s based on her own experience. She’s a charming, engaging performer, easily eliciting laughs from this afternoon’s audience. I cry too, because there is real heart here, and plenty of stuff that resonates. If at times it’s a little too close to home, a little difficult to bear, well, that’s the point, I think. That’s art, doing what art is meant to do.

There’s some lovely direction here (from Bogg-Hargroves and Zoey Barnes). The transformation of Kate’s desk into an examination table is simple and wonderfully offbeat, drawing a laugh all by itself. I like the little bit of puppetry too, and the pre-recorded offstage voices (sound tech by George Roberts) are a quirky and effective touch. (I do wonder, however, why the final voice is different from all the others; apart from this one, they’re all Bogg-Hargroves, who has an impressive range of accents and tones. Is this meant to signify something? If so, I don’t get it.)

Incidentally, the Pleasance Rear Courtyard is my favourite performance space so far this Fringe – the best example of a joyous outside/inside Covid-safe venue I’ve seen. And Skank is a delight too. Make time to see this. It’s a gem.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Myra DuBois: Dead Funny

13/08/21

Underbelly, George Square Gardens, Edinburgh

Myra DuBois is dead. Except for the fact that she is very much alive. But she wants us to pretend she’s dead, because this is her funeral. Clearly, she has to be here! If she waits until she’s actually dead, there’s no telling how it’ll go. This way, she’s in control, and can ensure it’s a suitably fabulous event.

As a conceit, this works well. It’s silly and audacious, and affords DuBois the chance to posture and self-aggrandise to her heart’s content. Actor Gareth Joyner’s alter-ego is an acerbic delight, bitching and carping her way through the proceedings, and eliciting helpless laughter from her audience along the way.

There’s nothing especially new here: DuBois clearly revels in exploring the old traditions of music hall, drag and cabaret. But it’s all so well done, so consummately performed, that it serves to remind us why these entertainment forms are so prevalent and popular. She’s funny. All the time.

If you’re shy, don’t sit on the front row. The Yorkshire diva’s best moments are when she’s interacting with (okay, picking on) the audience. She’s adept at choosing her victims: they’re lapping it up. Tonight, two men called Ross and Paul are singled out for special attention, along with a woman dressed in leopard print, whom DuBois keeps calling Lyndsey, even though she says her name is Louise (I can’t work out if this is part of the put-down or a genuine error). Someone shouts about a plot-hole in the punchline of a joke, and is told to fuck off, before being treated to the most venomous look I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t sound very funny when I write it down. It is though. The place erupts.

DuBois treats us to a reading, a poem by her sister and a few songs along the way. And oh, that voice. Annie Lennox somehow never managed to make Why sound quite like this…

RIP, Myra. You did yourself proud.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Eugene

11/08/21

Pleasance Courtyard, Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh

The Edinburgh Fringe thrives on good ideas and there’s a great one one at the heart of Eugene.

Set in the not-too-distant future, this show takes the form of a presentation by ‘Hugh'(Daniel Nicholas), the CEO of Hubris Industries. (Think of the grandiose, over-sincere product launches that Apple are so fond of and you’ll get the general idea.) Hugh is here to present his new invention, Eugene. The titular star of the show is the world’s first superhuman Artificial Intelligence and is represented by a glowing cube on a rostrum. Hugh assures us it’s capable of controlling the entire planet’s electricity supply, whilst simultaneously solving climate change. In his pocket, Hugh has the three er… floppy disks needed to make all that happen.

Hugh is blissfully unaware that Eugene has already introduced itself to the audience, using lines of text on a big screen – and also on our mobile phones, via an app called The Difference Engine. Thus it’s established from the outset that Eugene is a mischievous character with a mind of its own and a propensity for telling us more about its creator than he would like us to know.

Then out strides Hugh to present his TED talk. Hugh is a delightfully monstrous creation: smarmy, self-possessed and, not to put too fine a point on it, is so up himself he’s lost all sense of proportion. His every announcement is accompanied by an artless pose and an inane laugh, a kind of deathly chortle. As the presentation continues, more and more of Hugh’s darkest secrets come bubbling to the surface – and it’s evident that his plan to get Eugene up and running as quickly as possible is probably not going to end well.

On the day I view the show, there are a few glitches with the technology, which I think throw Nicholas off his stride a little – and the middle section consequently feels somewhat muddled. This is a shame, because the idea of combining integrated captioning with live action is something I haven’t seen before and there’s so much potential here, I’d like it to be developed even further – because the show is at its best when that pesky AI is inviting us to break all the rules.

Even with some gremlins in evidence, Eugene is an enjoyable way to spend an hour at the Fringe.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Bo Burnham: Inside

13/06/21

Netflix

Bo Burnham is what you might call a polymath – a man of wide-ranging talents. He acts; he writes; he sings; he plays maddeningly catchy music. He’s extraordinary! He’s also been around for quite a while (he first started performing comedy as a teenager), but I, sadly, have only recently become aware of him. He’s the writer/director behind the bittersweet coming-of-age movie, Eighth Grade, which Bouquets and Brickbats awarded a well-deserved 4.8 stars in 2019. More recently, he submitted a perfectly-judged performance as Ryan in Promising Young Woman. And he has three comedy specials on Netflix, the latest of which is Inside.

Like everyone else in recent history, Burnham found himself trapped at home by the pandemic. Shortly before being locked down, he’d been afflicted by crippling bouts of stage fright. Also, he was about to turn thirty, and he needed to talk to somebody about that situation.

So he wrote, directed and performed a one-hour-twenty-seven-minute piece that all takes place in one room of his house. Of course he did. He’s a polymath.

It can sometimes be hard to write about comedy, but this show is particularly hard to pin down, because it careens frantically from one routine to the next, all of them stitched together by a stream of perceptive, oddly Beatle-ish songs, each one of which seizes on a particular subject and brilliantly eviscerates it. Whether he’s commenting on the all-pervasive overload of the internet, spoofing a children’s show where a sock puppet is revealed to be a submissive slave to his human counterpart, offering a commentary on the kind of fluff that masquerades as emotion on Instagram, or exposing the raging narcissism that lurks at the root of every comedian’s output, this is never less than fascinating. It’s wry, self-deprecating – and sometimes shocking. Occasionally it dares to stand on the very edge of a precipitous ledge, staring down into the abyss.

Comedy is subjective, of course, but – having watched this – I was prompted to catch up on his two previous Netflix specials and to note how his work – though always first rate – has matured over the eight years, from what. (2013), through Make Happy (2016) to Inside (2021). This latest piece represents him at the very peak of his powers. Where he will go next is debatable – there is some talk of him pursuing a movie career but, if that is the case, I hope he doesn’t give up on what he’s doing here.

Which is being brilliantly, irreverently funny. And if there’s something we all need right now, it’s more laughter.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Death to 2020

27/12/20

Netflix

I had thought that the hideous happenings of 2020 could never make me laugh.

I was wrong.

Charlie Brooker’s cunningly constructed mockumentary takes a long hard look at the events of this momentous year, and gleefully eviscerates them in his familiar no-holds-barred fashion. (You could argue that he’s been a little too hasty in releasing it with a few days still to go, but hey, it can’t get any worse. Can it?)

Death to 2020 takes me from wincing and cringing to laughing-out-loud time and time again. It’s the comedy equivalent of riding a roller coaster. For once, this is far less of a one-man project than we’ve come to expect from Brooker. There are no fewer than twenty writers attached to this project, and it would seem their best efforts have been cherry-picked. This is essentially a month-by-month retelling of everything that went down in the year 2020, but all viewed from a slightly skewed perspective. It works, big time.

Brooker has also enlisted considerable star-power for this special. Samuel L Jackson is Dash Bracket, focusing his ironic comments on the rise and fall of a certain Mr Trump. Hugh Grant (never funnier) is Tennyson Foss, a historian who can’t seem to differentiate between genuine history and random events from Game of Thrones. Lisa Kudrow is brilliant as Trump spokesperson Jeanetta Grace Susan, unashamedly denying the president’s heinous actions even as they unfold on video, right in front of her eyes. And Tracey Ullman is rather too convincing as Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Charlie Brooker event without the presence of Diane Morgan, and she’s here too, as Gemma Nerrick, a woman so odious that lockdown has actually worked in her favour, a viewer so overdosed on daytime TV she’s constantly muddling real events and the soaps she’s addicted to.

Of course, some will argue that we shouldn’t be laughing at the horror-show in which we’re all so inextricably mired, but I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. Chances are, you will to.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Bike Project: Jokes and Spokes

03/11/20

It’s my brother who tells us that The Bike Project’s Jokes and Spokes annual charity comedy night is streaming live. Like many others, our family is spread out around the country and, with Scotland, England and Wales all following different lockdown timetables, who knows how long it’ll be before we can see each other again? So he suggests we ‘attend’ this event together, and we (and my parents) are more than happy to comply.

We know it’s bound to a be a little odd. Stand ups need their live audiences more than other performers (theatre link-ups aren’t as good as the real thing, but they can still be wonderful); as an audience member, I need the buzz of shared laughter too, the sense of complicity that comes from sitting in a darkened room, ideally being challenged and surprised. But still. That’s not available, and we all have to adapt.

And The Bike Project is a very worthwhile cause: all money raised goes towards refurbishing old bicycles and giving them to refugees. I love this: ethical, environmental, achievable and genuinely useful.

Jen Brister compères, and she’s good at it: briskly funny, with a warm and generous manner. She puts us at our ease, and we settle in.

It’s a bit of a mixed bag, quality wise. To be fair, not only are the comedians dealing with an unfriendly format, they’re also out of practice, and haven’t had much chance to hone their work.

Still, Suzi Ruffell gets us off to a good start. She’s so twinkly and charming, it almost doesn’t matter if she’s telling jokes or not, but she is, and they’re funny – so that’s good. True, we’ve all seem some of this material before, but that’s inevitable to some extent, and there’s new stuff in there too.

I’m a little disappointed with Andy Zaltzman – whose comedy I usually like – because he’s reading from a script, so there’s no eye contact at all. Also, he reads so quickly that I miss a lot of it. If we were in the same room, he’d be able to gauge that better, I guess, and slow himself down. I can’t really review the content, because I didn’t catch it. A real shame.

Next up is Evelyn Mok. I haven’t seen her before and I want to cut her some slack because lockdown is hard on all of us, and I know she’s appearing for free (like all the comics here). But she doesn’t seem to have any material at all, not even a basic bit of WIP, and she’s just chatting to the ‘front row’ audience members who are visible on our screens. ‘This is like being at somebody else’s family get together,’ my brother messages our group. There are some rare raconteurs who can just shoot the breeze and keep us entertained. But Evelyn Mok doesn’t do it for me tonight. If I get the chance to see her live, I’ll take it; I’d like to know what she’s like in a more natural environment.

Although I’ve never seen Athena Kugblenu, I’m primed to like her because I listen to The Guilty Feminist and I know her well from that. She doesn’t disappoint. Yes, it’s a low energy performance, but she’s cheery and engaged, and she makes us laugh. Oddly, it’s her stuff about how difficult it is to do comedy online that really hits the mark. It’s a relief to mock the elephant in the Zoom.

We’re all big fans of Richard Herring in our family, and he’s his usual cheeky, ramshackle self. But, although he’s set himself the laudable challenge of not performing any of his pre-lockdown material again, we’ve still all heard this set before. It’s not his fault, though, that we listen to all of his podcasts and read his blog; we’re bound to encounter his ideas along the way. Things pick up when he introduces his ventriloquist dummy, Ally, and embarks on a ridiculous improvisation.

Kemah Bob gives us the most honed performance of the night. She seems very comfortable performing online, and she establishes an easy intimacy. This is clearly well practised material, but it’s new to us, and we’re laughing out loud most of the time.

Last but not least is headliner Frankie Boyle. He’s great: his tone is very natural, and he’s as acerbic and cantankerous as you’d expect. This is classic Frankie, albeit with the invective dialled down a notch.

The show ends and our group call begins. It’s been great, we all agree: three households ‘meeting’ remotely to share an experience. Not as good, nowhere near as good, as going out together would be. But a fair compromise in a compromised world. And charitable to boot.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Bravo Figaro

14/05/20

Go Faster Stripe and Traverse Theatre

Mark Thomas is always a delight to watch: standup, storyteller, activist – all of these terms can be applied to him and all seem to fit perfectly. We missed Bravo Figaro at last year’s festival, so this seems like a welcome addition to our lockdown entertainment options, streaming live on YouTube for just £5, with a percentage of ticket purchases going to the Traverse theatre.

Business is pretty much as usual here, as Thomas ambles onto a sparsely furnished stage and begins to unfold the story of his father, Colin, a hardworking family man, a builder by trade who, unusually for a working class chap, developed a fervent passion for opera. Thomas pulls no punches in his depiction of a man who was never slow in using his own fists when angered and who clearly ruled his wife and chidren with a rod of iron. But, when he was stricken by a rare form of degenerative illness, Colin became a shadow of the man he used to be – and his son had to look for ways in which he might remind his father of the things that used to motivate him.

This clever and moving story, draws a compelling narrative, interspersed with occasional recorded pieces featuring the voices of his parents in conversation.

It’s testament to Thomas’s considerable skill as a raconteur that he manages to flit effortlessly in and out of the various scenes, between genuinely funny observations and heartwrenching moments of realisation. Not everything here quite hits home as surely as it might, for example, a brief passage where he explains to the younger people in the audience what vinyl is seems like a misstep – they are the hipster generation, after all.

But that’s a minor quibble. This is a charming and perceptive piece, that provides an excellent way to fill an hour of lockdown. I look forward to seeing him again, preferrably in a packed theatre, with the laughter of others ringing around me.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Edfest Bouquets 2019

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It’s that time again when we award (virtual) bouquets to the best shows we saw at this year’s EdFringe. From a plethora of performances over three weeks, here are our highlights. Congratulations to all concerned.

Theatre

Endless Second – Theo Toksvig-Stewart/Madeleine Gray/Camilla Gurtler/ Cut the Cord

Who Cares? – Jessica Temple/Lizzie Mounter/Luke Grant/ Matt Woodhead/ LUNG & The Lowry

Shine – Olivier Leclair/Tiia-Mari Mäkinen/Hippana Theatre & From Start to Finnish

Ripped – Alex Gwyther/Max Lindsay/Robin Rayner Productions

On The Other Hand, We’re Happy – Toyin Omari-Kinch/Charlotte Bate/Charlotte O’Leary/Daf James/Stef O’Driscoll/Paines Plough & Theatr Clwyd

Comedy

Jo Caulfield: Voodoo Doll – The Stand Comedy Club

Daliso Chaponda: Blah Blah Blacklist – CKP and InterTalent Group

Showstopper! the Improvised Musical – The Showstoppers/Something for the Weekend

Fishbowl – SIT Productions with Le Fils Du Grand Réseau

Beep Boop – Richard Saudek/Crowded Outlet

Special Mentions

Chris Dugdale – Down To One – Chris Dugdale Int Ents

Sexy Lamp – Katie Arnstein/Victoria Gagliano

 

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

Flo & Joan: Before the Screaming Starts

25/08/19

Assembly George Square Gardens (Piccolo), Edinburgh

Our penultimate Edinburgh show is chosen simply by virtue of its convenenient time slot, rather than for the act itself. The truth is, I know very little of Flo and Joan’s work, other than the quirky advertisements for the Nationwide that first brought them to wider attention. They are clearly having a very good Fringe. The Piccolo tent is completely sold out and, when comedy luminaries like Hannah Gadsby and Alan Davies are sitting in the audience, it’s evident they’re doing something right.

Flo and Joan (real names Nicola and Rosie Dempsy) are an eccentric sister-act who specialise in amusing songs about everyday experiences – waiting for a parcel delivery, for instance, is something we’re all much too familiar with, but they manage to take the song into unexpected, fantastical realms. They have a sharper edge too. The song addressed to anti-vaxxers doesn’t take any prisoners.

There’s something very endearing about this duo. I love the silent, accusatory stares they direct at a few hapless latecomers. ‘The show loses momentum when we talk,’ says Flo. It doesn’t, but I feel almost contractually obliged to say it does, after their references to what other critics have said about them. Actually, I enjoy their deadpan patter.

The theme of this (if there is one) is siblings who sing together. The Osmonds, The Bee Gees, Bros, etc. That title, of course, is a reference to the recent so-bad-it’s-good  documentary about the Brothers Goss. But really, this is just a series of amusing ditties, skilfully played and nicely sung; when the sister’s harmonise, it’s clear that their voices were made for each other. If I were to make a comparison with any other comedian, it would be with the late great Victoria Wood. Flo and Joan seem to share her delicious sense of the ridiculous, her flair for amusing one liners.

At any rate, this is their last night in Edinburgh, so if you’re planning to catch them, it will have to be somewhere else. Wherever you encounter them, you’re likely to enjoy the experience.

4 stars

Philip Caveney