The Ghost Train

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Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester


The Royal Exchange are billing The Ghost Train as a comedy thriller, and there are certainly elements of both within Dad’s Army favourite Arnold Ridley’s 1920s play. It’s a lively production, performed with zeal by the ever-peppy Told By an Idiot, and there’s plenty to commend.

The premise is simple: six passengers are stranded at an isolated railway station, purportedly haunted by a ghost train. The play follows the development of their relationships, and unravels the mystery of the phantom. It’s hardly challenging stuff, but then, it isn’t meant to be, or at least not in this incarnation. Here, it’s clearly supposed to be fun – a riotous, silly, galumphing escapade – and it certainly had the audience laughing throughout.

There were a lot of clever moments: I love a bit of overt theatricality, so I was tickled by the narration-and-sound-effects idea at the start of the play (although I did feel it went on too long), and impressed by some of the set pieces, such as the initial (interrupted) train journey, and the prolonged parrot-chase. The cast revelled in the performance, and their enthusiasm was – at times – infectious.

However, despite (or because of) all the playfulness and witty ideas, the play just didn’t hang together. It was uneven and incoherent at times, with techniques shoehorned in as if it were an A level piece (where students need to demonstrate everything they know, all at once, even if it doesn’t really fit).

And, while some ideas were stretched to their limits – the ludicrous woman-in-a-parrot-suit, for example – other, more promising notions just weren’t taken far enough (the clowning was half-hearted; the drag act criminally understated), which was a real shame.

In all honesty, this play just didn’t work for me or my companions, but this certainly wasn’t a universal view. The house was raucous with laughter, and the applause was enthusiastic. Why not see it and decide for yourself? You certainly won’t be bored.

2.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Scott Capurro



Assembly Rooms, George Street

Scott Capurro strolls onto the stage at the Assembly Rooms, looking like Kevin Bacon’s half-brother. He takes one look at the (rather sparse) audience and then he’s off and running. His sly, strangely endearing, but openly bitchy persona comes equipped with an excoriating tongue and a recklessness that means no subject is beyond the range of his scorn – race, religion, sexuality, politics… you name it; each subject is set up and summarily chopped down with a series of wicked one-liners. In short, this man doesn’t care who he offends and indeed, appears to revel in it. It’s saying something when a brief allusion to Robin Williams leaves him momentarily misty-eyed and after the vitriolic tirade that has preceded it, it’s this moment that seems shockingly perverse. 

Capurro achieves a powerful rapport with his audience even as he is ripping them to pieces. A guy to my left, despite being accompanied by his girlfriend is ‘secretly gay’ – and so Capurro flirts with him throughout the rest of the act. A married couple across the room, out to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary, are depicted as a pair of inbred knuckle draggers. And when he discovers that Susan and I have been married for exactly one week and two days, we soon find ourselves the butt of his scorn… but we’re laughing and cringing in equal measure. Capurro isn’t going to win any awards for sensitivity but this show is as funny as it is outrageous and clearly deserves a bigger audience than it had tonight. Excellent stuff.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Rob Newman’s New Theory of Evolution



Stand On The Square, Edinburgh

Back in the 1980’s, as part of influential TV comedy troop The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Rob Newman became a household name. Shortly thereafter, with his partner David Badiel, he was one of the first comedians to play stadium-sized gigs around the UK. But then something went wrong and he dropped out of sight for quite some time. Now, after an absence of seven years, he’s back in Edinburgh, with this slice of anthropologically-inspired comedy.

The first thing to say is that it’s very original material and Newman approaches stand-up like no other comedian I’ve ever seen. It’s probably also fair to say that the results aren’t wildly funny, yielding smirks and knowing sniggers, rather than big laughs. This is clever stuff, perhaps too clever for tonight’s festival crowd, who’ve clearly come out fuelled by a couple of drinks, expecting something rather more accessible than what they’re given.

Matters aren’t helped by the fact that Newman seems decidedly ill at ease with his audience. He stalks up and down the small stage, putting everything he has into his delivery, the effort requiring him to mop at his perspiring face with a handkerchief, but he fails to establish any real rapport and that’s a problem. His wide-ranging talk is actually closer to a lecture than a comedy routine and it’s punctuated by a couple of songs, inexpertly bashed out on a ukelele, that fail to make any impact whatsoever. Perhaps in a more sober environment, this might have managed to generate more sparks, but tonight it comes across as something of a missed opportunity. Shame, because there’s a real intellect at work here, that fails to make a proper connection with its intended audience.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

John Lloyd’s Museum of Curiosities Live



Underbelly, Bristo Square, Edinburgh

Radio 4 listeners will already be familiar with the format of this intriguing show, led by near legendary producer  and self-styled Professor of Ignorance, John Lloyd. This is simply a live performance of the same format but with a few visual aids thrown in. Here Lloyd is assisted by his ‘curator’ (Daniel Schrieber) and three guest speakers – author Frank Cotteral Boyce, QI researcher, Andy Murray (not THAT Andy Murray!) and ‘too many roles to list’ Clive Anderson.

The idea is that each guest suggests something that might be placed into the Museum and they discuss their choices in detail. Boyce chose a printed year-by-year edition of everything that’s on the internet (one hell of a big volume),  Anderson wanted the real King Macbeth (much unlike his Shakespearian equivalent, it seems) and Murray chose leeches, who he maintains, have a totally undeserved bad press. As ever, the show is witty, surprisingly informative and a very pleasant way to spend an hour. The earth didn’t move but after a series of loud frenetic shows, this was a nice relaxing slice of entertainment.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Holly Walsh – Never Had It



Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

Holly Walsh likes to paint herself as a bit of a nerd – back as a teenager, when all her mates were riding a maelstrom of illegal drugs and enjoying all kinds of sexual encounters, she was the one collecting her Duke of Edinburgh award. This pleasingly intimate performance is supported by her canny use of PowerPoint – a much neglected comedy aid. Some of her selected images have us laughing out loud, particularly her use of marginalia from medieval manuscripts (trust me, it’s much funnier than it sounds).

There’s also plenty of lively interplay with her audience, some cleverly improvised verbal exchanges and the performance never loses sight of its initial concept, that of the perennial ‘uncool’ individual beset by those who actually ‘have it.’ A sequence about a shaming event in a tapas bar was a particular highlight for me but, to be honest, the laughter never flags throughout the hour long set. Walsh may not be the coolest comedian on the block but, on the evidence of this show, she’s well on her way to being one of the funniest.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Just Like That – The Tommy Cooper Show



Gilded Balloon Teviot, Edinburgh

Tommy Cooper was a legendary comedian and it’s no surprise that in any given year at the Fringe, you’ll find a couple of tribute shows devoted to him. ‘Just Like That,’ featuring Lincolnshire-based John Hewer, comes with the blessing of the Cooper estate – and little wonder. While he doesn’t really resemble the late comedian, he nonetheless inhabits the man’s persona to an uncanny degree, offering a note-perfect set compiled from some of Cooper’s lesser known cabaret routines.

Cooper was one of those rare comedians who was just innately funny. His act, a ragbag collection of terrible puns and amateurish magic would have foundered and sunk in the hands of any other comedian. But Hewer knows exactly how do deliver the goods. Within minutes of his entrance, the audience are laughing hysterically and it never falters throughout the hour long show. Okay, so there are no surprises here – you get exactly what it says on the can. An impersonation of a comedy genius. But as a lifelong Cooper fan, I was transported by this show. Go along expecting nothing but a good, hearty laugh and you won’t be disappointed.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Sara Pascoe Vs History



Assembly George Square Studios, Edinburgh

Sara Pascoe is under the weather tonight. Some dreaded Fringe lurgy has struck and her set is punctuated by her recourse to occasional slugs of Lemsip. Whenever she attempts a high-pitched voice (for comic effect) what emerges is a kind of strangled squeak. So her delivery is perhaps more restrained than usual. But her vivacity and likeable personality shine through nonetheless and we’re treated to a confident amble through her childhood, with wry digs at former boyfriends and her current partner (fellow stand-up John Robins.)

Sexuality is a major theme here and while much of the material evokes wry smiles rather than belly-laughs, it’s nonetheless cleverly written and expertly knitted together. A story about being asked to provide an ‘intelligent’ quote for FHM magazine is a particular delight and a piece about human reproduction demonstrates that there’s real intelligence at work here and a determination to push the comedy envelope a little further than many of her peers.

This is political feminist comedy at its most engaging. I left with the distinct impression that had she been in full health, this would have been an even more satisfying event

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Jo Caulfield – Cancel My Subscription



The Stand Comedy Club, Edinburgh

In Cancel My Subscription, Jo Caulfield doesn’t confound expectations so much as revel in them. She gives exactly what her audience expects: a caustic, bilious and gloriously profane account of the world as she sees it. The humour is largely narrative, and none the worse for it; Caulfield demonstrates with admirable aplomb how it is possible to push the boundaries of taste and decency without ever descending into “look-mum-no-hands-I-just-want-to-shock” territory. But shock she does: acutely timed references to polar opposites Jill Dando and Josef Fritzl leave the audience gasping, but with delight at her chutzpah more than anything else.

I really enjoyed this show. It didn’t surprise me, but then I didn’t go to be surprised. I went because I am a fan, and because I knew I would laugh myself silly.

And because I was born in the same hospital as her.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Red Bastard



Pleasance Forth, Edinburgh

Another Fringe phenomenon, Red Bastard (or Eric Davis as his friends hopefully call him) was one of the biggest hits of 2013 and he’s back with a reputation strong enough to lure 300 punters at a time into one of the bigger venues at the Pleasance. We’d been warned to expect to be outraged. ‘Whatever you do, don’t put your hand up!’ And the posters for the show boasted that ‘something interesting will happen every 10 seconds.’ In the event, it didn’t, but maybe I’m quibbling.

Red Bastard is a skinny gentleman in a weirdly distended leotard, who bounds onstage and starts bullying the audience. It’s like an elaborate game of Simon Says. ‘All change places with each other!’ he barks. We all do. ‘Raise your mobile phones in the air!’ We all do as he says. His command over the audience is undeniable and it’s clear that many of the avid crowd have worshipped at this altar before, but… it’s hardly groundbreaking material. And then, he starts in with the self-help stuff and suddenly we’re into a different kind of show entirely. We are led to believe it is all about empowerment, about facing your fears, about realising that you are amazing and you have to stand up for yourselves. Which is frankly like the trite nonsense that people paste over pictures of dolphins on Facebook, to show the world how ‘sensitive’ they are. I suppose that Davis sees himself as ‘the fool who speaks the truth,’ but to me it’s more of a case of ‘the fool who talks like a novelty fridge-magnet.’ I cannot deny the show’s evident success, but this left me cold. On the way out, I overheard people enthusing about how brilliant it had all been; all I could think was that was an hour and twenty minutes I’ll never get back.

1.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Gary Little – The Thing Is



The Stand Comedy Club, Edinburgh

We chanced on Gary Little by way of the official Edinburgh Festival Fringe app, which has a handy section called ‘nearby now.’ It was five o’clock; we had a couple of hours to kill; what should we see? It had to be something in the less Fringe-dense New Town, so that we could be sure to make our later – planned – appointment with One Man Breaking Bad in St Andrew’s Square (see review). And, on paper, Gary Little’s show seemed to fit the bill. An hour at our favourite comedy club, The Stand, rarely disappoints, and we were keen to see at least one Scottish performance during our sojourn in the capital.

Little is certainly engaging; he commanded the tiny stage and my attention never wandered. There were inspired moments when he made me snort with laughter, such as his suggested method for breaking Thornton’s toffee, but – over all – this show was not for me. I found Little’s routine too reliant on gender stereotypes (men only agree to cuddle because they’re hoping for sex; it’s a real disappointment to discover that women fart and stop shaving their legs when they’re in a long-term relationship), and his general persona rather too aggressive (I couldn’t relate at all to the idea of chasing down a fellow dog-walker in a park because he failed to say, “All right?”).

That said, the latter section of the set was – for me – markedly better; Little’s routine about visiting Auschwitz was a lot less hackneyed, and his final piece about using Abba Gold as an anti-depressant was genuinely heart-warming. If the rest of his show were as original as this, he might have found himself a new fan.

2.6 stars

Susan Singfield