Phill Jupitus

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

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06/10/16

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The crowds of eager-faced youngsters milling happily around the foyer of the Festival theatre say it all – there’s a bona fide family show in town and everyone’s up for some good old-fashioned feelgood entertainment. Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, first published as a novel in 1964 and made into a Disney movie in 1968,  made it to the stage in 2002 and it’s been thrilling audiences pretty much ever since.

Caractacus Potts (Jason Manford), a would-be inventor and recent widower, desperately needs to make thirty shillings in order to save an old racing car from the scrap-merchants. His two young children, Jeremy and Jemima (played on the night we attended by Hayden Goldberg and Caitlin Surtees) love the car too – particularly when their father has managed to buy it and has applied his unusual skills to customising it. Pretty soon the Potts family have a car that can do all kinds of amazing things… and then along comes Truly Scrumptious (Charlotte Wakefield), and a romance is soon in the air…

Of course, if your play is named after the car rather than a human character, you’re going to expect it to be pretty special and sure enough, the ingenious staging of this production really does convince you that the titular vehicle can race down roads, speed across water and even take to the skies. But perhaps the real revelation here is Manford, who has managed to make the difficult transformation from Northern stand up to an all-singing, all-dancing trooper. The boy really can hit those notes. And there’s no getting around the powerful spell woven by the wonderfully sinister Child Catcher (Jos Vantyler) who seems to have wandered in from a small child’s nightmares.

Okay, so not everything in the henhouse is perfect. The spectre of the scary foreigner, which hangs over the production in the shape of the Vulgarians, headed up by Baron and Baroness Bomburst (Phill Jupitus and Claire Sweeney), might make more enlightened hackles rise, but CCBB is very much a product of the era in which it was conceived – and perhaps it’s no great surprise from the creator of James Bond, a man who spent his early years working for Naval Intelligence. Nevertheless, there’s much here to enjoy.

What CCBB has in spades, of course, is those memorable songs – you’ll almost certainly exit the building humming the Sherman Brothers’ incredibly catchy theme song – I know we did. This is a classy production, slickly staged and perfectly tailored for a family audience. Be sure to take your kids to see it. They’ll believe a car can fly.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

 

Impossible

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10/08/15

Pleasance, Queen Dome

Based around an intriguing real life tale featuring two of the 20th Century’s most celebrated figures, Impossible is about the escalating rivalry between escapologist/magician, Harry Houdini (very much the Derren Brown of his day) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. The two men were initially good friends, intrigued by each other’s abilities but Doyle’s belief in the supernatural (exacerbated, no doubt, by the untimely death of his son, Jack in the First World War) was at odds  with Houdini’s desire to root out fake mediums and spiritualists wherever he encountered them. It didn’t help that Doyle’s wife was herself such a spiritualist and that Doyle saw Houdini’s refusal to explain how he accomplished his own ‘supernatural’ displays as a sign that he was really covering up his evident paranormal abilities. Eventually, the feud resulted in the two men becoming bitter enemies, which they remained until Houdini’s death in 1926.

Alan Cox is a confident and striking Houdini. With his exaggerated theatrical gestures and his strident personality, he convinces the audience that this is exactly how the man must have presented himself in real life. It’s nice also to see Phill Jupitus extending his range by giving us a dour, curmudgeonly Doyle, with a totally convincing Edinburgh accent. (If he got that wrong here, there would be a major problem!) There’s also some fascinating black and white cinema footage, including a reel from Willis O Brian’s groundbreaking stop-motion work for the film version of Doyle’s The Lost World, which in 1922, he playfully presented to a meeting of the Society of American Magicians as ‘psychic images of real dinosaurs.’ Many prominent magicians were completely taken in by it.

Handsomely mounted, nicely acted and with a genuinely poignant conclusion, this is definitely one to watch.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Stand Up With Labour

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22/09/14

Opera House Manchester

On the face of it, this Labour Conference tub-thumper looked like a win-win situation. Watch five top comics for an all-in price of around thirty pounds and support your chosen political party at the same time. But perched in the vertiginous gallery of the Manchester Opera House, I began to wonder if comedy was ever designed to work in a venue like this.

Our host was Stephen K. Amos. I’ve seen and heard him before and have been left somewhat unimpressed, but he proved an intelligent choice to compere tonight’s proceedings and performing live, he’s much edgier than he’s allowed to be on TV and radio. He generated genuine laughs and established a lively rapport with the audience down in the stalls, though from our perch in the gods, we couldn’t actually see any of that.

First up was Ian Stone, who I confess I hadn’t previously heard of. He ambled out and delivered a confident and sometimes hilarious set of observational comedy, though a piece about the situation in Gaza (he’s Jewish) was perhaps the most ‘political’ comedy of the evening. By the time he’d finished, I had laughed heartily and I marked him down as ‘one to watch.’

Phill Jupitus is of of course a familiar name from TV panel shows. Here he was, performing stand up for the first time in years, mostly because Eddie Izzard invited him to this event (or so Phill told us). To be honest, he looked like he didn’t really want to be there and gave us a diffident, overly intellectual routine, reading from his collection of (decent) poems and occasionally glancing at his watch. The ‘highlight’ of his routine was a poem about Jeremy Clarkson, hardly the most original of targets and the only laughter that he managed to raise was muted and sporadic. Maybe he’s been too long away from the game, but this was definitely the most disappointing act of the evening.

Sarah Pascoe on the other hand, is a brilliant stand up, but her set was somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the auditorium and it didn’t help that it was word-for-word the same act I’d seen at the Edinburgh fringe in August where she played a much smaller venue and managed to make every line a zinger. Nevertheless, for my money, this was still the best material of the evening and I believe that Pascoe has a bright future ahead of her.

Top of the bill, Eddie Izzard strode out and was… well, uniquely Eddie Izzard. We were treated to the usual surreal stream-of-consciouness shtick, ranging from the origins of human sacrifice to something that strayed dangerously close to Monty Python’s ‘What Have The Romans Ever Done for Us?’ routine. He wasn’t remotely phased by the size of the venue but his set reminded me of one of those budget bumper boxers of cheap fireworks. Throw in a match and you’ll discover a few dazzling beauties in there, but you’ll also find several damp squibs that don’t quite go off. Izzard really needs a longer time slot in order for his irrational nonsense to bear any kind of fruit and there simply wasn’t space for it here.

All-in-all, an interesting night but one that didn’t really live up to expectations. For one thing, given that this was a fund raiser for the Labour party, I would have expected to see more comedy with a political edge. But Ian Stone aside, there wasn’t much and he only flirted with it, before moving on to more general humour. And then there’s the Opera House itself… hmm. The moral of the story is, I think that comedy works best in smaller, more intimate venues, where the comics really can reach out and work their strange chemistry on an audience. Had we managed to procure seats down in the stalls, this might have been a more positive review. But the stars reflect the show as a whole.

3 stars

Philip Caveney