Alex Horne/The Best of Chortle

The Best of Chortle Comedy Tour, feat Alex Horne – 23 November, 2013 – Berry Theatre, Hedge End

Alex-Horne

[Part 3 in the ongoing series of short, late reviews]

Compered by John Robins and headlined by Alex Horne, this show was pretty hit and miss. Robins did a great job in a 20% full theatre and Alex Horne did a reliable job closing things off, but it was clear the other comedians on the bill were early on in their career. Each had a few decent lines but didn’t have a smooth and complete 15 minutes. Given time they could all develop into guys worth looking out for but it’s equally clear that there’s hard work ahead to reach that point. Robins was the find though, and someone I’ll be trying to track down in a show on his own…

Lucy Porter – Northern Soul

Lucy Porter – Northern Soul – 21 November, 2013 – Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham

Northern Soul

[This is part of my ongoing series of ridiculously late, and thus shorter, reviews while I catch up]

When she’s not labelling me a sexual predator, Lucy Porter’s new show, Northern Soul, is a brilliant trip through her childhood through to her early days as a comedian, detailing how she went from feeling alienated in Croydon to discovering where her she really belonged through the music of the 80s. Where her previous show, People Person, was essentially based around an anecdote – a very amusing anecdote very well told, but still a little inconsequential, with occasional glimpses of something more – Northern Soul is deeper and more heartfelt and is all the stronger for it. As for the sexual predator thing, I guess someone has to be given that label each night and I was sat a little too close to the front. At least I hope that’s the case, but at least I’m not from Derby…

Jeremy Hardy 2013

Jeremy Hardy – Nuffield Theatre, Southampton – November 15, 2013

Jeremy Hardy

This is running very late, so I’m going to make it short and sweet. Jeremy Hardy is a very funny man but, as he acknowledged, he’s been doing stand-up for 30 years now and he probably should be by now. He has a very relaxed manner which comes with the experience he’s built up and the confidence in a) his material and b) his ability to deal with anything that should come up. Not that his gigs are rife with hecklers. He’s perhaps at least mildly remarkable for not having drifted to the right as so many people are ‘supposed’ to as they age (see Ben Elton for the worst example of this), and his show is kept relevant with a lot of cutting material on the current government and scathing words for the attitudes they’re promoting, but at the same time he’s more than happy to send himself and his liberal views up.

A

Suede – Southampton Guildhall

Suede Bloodsports

Suede – Southampton Guildhall – 22 October 2013

Suede’s new UK tour kicked off with a great performance only inhibited by the terrible sound quality that has always been a feature of Southampton Guildhall.

Obeying the rule that the support should never overshadow the main event, the first half of the gig is devoted to playing the entirety of their new album, Bloodsports. That’s not to say it’s a bad album – there are some very good tracks on it – it’s just that it’s not… well… none of the songs will sit too happily among what’s too follow.

The second half of the show is a reminder of why we are all there and why Suede were a big deal in the first place. The band play each of their first 10 singles, running through from The Drowners to Beautiful Ones.

It’s a fascinating journey that started 21 years ago. Something that is hugely scary to think about. Suede’s eponymous debut album was the first of my ‘modern’ purchases (read: the first I am happy to own up to), and represented the beginning of my love for vinyl.

It’s amazing just how fresh and exciting The Drowners still sounds. It’s as though it’s been vacuum-sealed because it’s still fresh and invigorating. That initial burst of drums opening the song is perhaps the most dramatic way for a new band to introduce itself to the world and then Bernard Butler’s riff cuts through air and then… and then… Brett Anderson asks someone to give him a gun in a vocal style that to my musically uneducated ears is like no one else. The opening of that song, especially to a 15 year old who, up until that moment has had, at best, questionable taste, was an awakening. It seemed to redefine what music could be on some level.

Similar statements can be made about the other 3 singles from that first album, Metal Mickey, Animal Nitrate and So Young. Overall, that album stands unique. You can trace lines through it, before and after, but nothing sounds quite like it, and that includes the future works from its authors.

Of course, in the process of making Suede’s follow-up, Dog Man Star, Bernard Butler left the band and Richard Oakes, a youngster from Poole joined the band’s ranks to replace him. The album only features Anderson/Butler compositions, but the sound was already progressing and moving away from what had come before. Stay Together was the epic non-album track single that came between the two, and is luxuriated in on stage. The lyrics, which Anderson has previously dismissed as weak, disappear into background as the guitar comes to the fore.

We Are The Pigs came as the first single from the second album and is nowhere near as alienating as the title makes it sound. I love the song, at times it is my favourite of theirs, and it’s still in the tradition of what went before, but after this things start the change. The Wild Ones represented the first slower ballad released as a single, and it’s swept up in romantic notions in a way that escapes the grit and the grime of the first album.

Finally, New Generation showcases the new direction for Suede – it’s a brilliant pop song, and again, one that I love, but listening to the progression played live it’s clear how much of a transformation occurred between these two time periods. Where once it was the outright weirdness of

“She sells hearts, she sells meat,
Dad, she’s driving me mad, come see”

… for a chorus, now it’s the much more traditional

“Oh but when she is calling here in my head
Can you hear her calling
And what she has said?
Oh but when she is calling here in my head
It’s like a new generation calling
Can you hear it call?
And I’m losing myself, losing myself to you”

When we then move on to Trash and Beautiful Ones, the beginning of the Oakes era, it’s clear just how much has changed. Perhaps it’s in the production or perhaps it’s in Oakes’ writing but the guitars are no longer as clean and crisp and cutting as they were. Trash, as played here, is clearly a significant cut below the tunes that surround it. At the time of its release I remember struggling to pick the tune out properly, but it grew on me, but in such illustrious company it’s as flimsy as the litter on the breeze from the chorus.

Oakes needed a hit to reassure the fans who weren’t happy about Butler’s departure and hadn’t been convinced by Trash, and they duly got one in the form of the next single and final song of the night, Beautiful Ones, which is, again, a brilliant pop song, and one filled with the kind of guitar-work fans had been pining for, but aside from references to being “High on diesel and gasoline” and “drag acts, drug acts, suicides” could actually have been the work of any number of guitar pop bands. It sounded like Suede because it was Brett Anderson singing, but musically it didn’t bear much resemblance to the band that had come before. That said, the sing-along “La la la”s at the end of the song are a magnificent way to head of stage and leave a crowd wanting more.

There was no more to come, of course, because the best had already been. It was an exhilarating journey through the back catalogue of a band who had number one albums and sold out gigs at the O2 while, along with the Manic Street Preachers, seeming like one of the less commercial bands of the 1990s. The 90s were, of course, the decade where Sky took football from the terraces and hooligans and made it mainstream, it was the decade that launched a thousand lads mags, and yet the band that launched Britpop (like it or not) where androgynous and of ambiguous sexuality. But that’s what cracking tunes can do. What’s most shocking, perhaps, is that if Suede had never existed and The Drowners was released now, it would sound as fresh, different and out there as it did 21 years ago.

A

And hopefully this will work… A Spotify playlist of the gig…

Mark Thomas – 100 Acts of Minor Dissent

Mark Thomas – 100 Acts of Minor Dissent – Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham – Friday September 13, 2013

mark_thomas_edinburgh_2013_2-3

I’ve been delaying writing this review, not because I didn’t enjoy myself, but because I really wasn’t sure how to approach writing it. I’m still not but I have to give it a go. You see, Mark Thomas has, one way or another, been a part of my life for almost 20 years, and I have seen him live so many times and with so many different people that he means a lot more to me than just a being a comedian/activist. I still have a VHS copy of his Sex, Filth and Religion show from around 1995 and a year or so ago showed it to my other half. While naturally for comedy with a significant political element some of it is rather dated, much of it is still hilarious and I was also pleasantly surprised/scared to find I could recite pretty much the whole show along with Mark. Maybe it’s because of the point in my life where that show came along, but I do view it as one of the funniest comedy sets available (and I implore Mark to either get a DVD or digital copy available so I can finally be rid of my VCR).

Mark Thomas was, I think, the first comedian I saw after I got my driver’s licence and hence could get myself (and my friends) out to gigs. I saw him at the Wedgwood Rooms in Portsmouth. I’m not sure what the show was called that time, but it featured a section called “Have you ever stolen anything from work?”. Previously supplied answers included cocaine (from a vets in Manchester, used to knock out the dogs before operations) and a freezer, and at our show a blow-up doll was added to the list.

I dragged my first serious girlfriend up to Balham to see a Work In Progress show, and had the opportunity to have a quick chat with Mark pre-show. I watched and recorded every episode of the Comedy Product on Channel 4, later, just the Mark Thomas Product as the comedy took a back seat to some important issues (though even in the bleakest of stories, such as those around the Ilisu Dam or Palestine, Mark has always found the comedy along with the tragedy). I’ve seen Mark’s campaign against Coca-Cola and the way that company destroys (or has in the past destroyed) communities in South America, Africa and India. I’ve seen Mark discuss the various arms fairs he’s been to – including the episode of his show where he aired footage of someone from, I think, the Indonesian Embassy admitting to atrocities – something no one had ever managed to achieve before. Earlier this year I saw, and reviewed, Thomas performing Bravo Figaro, more a theatre performance piece than stand-up comedy, which gave me more insight into his own life and times, and filled in large pieces of his own history for me.

So there is a huge weight of history on any performance of his that I go along to. He’s achieved so much and I have enjoyed so many shows in the past, added to which I have my whole adult life history attached according to who I went with and what was happening to me, and, since this year, I have Mark’s own family history to add to the mix. And while Mark clearly doesn’t know who I am, this has all led to me feeling like there is a long deep-seated relationship.

Halfway through 100 Acts there was a part of me that was feeling like it was a relationship that the spark had gone out of. Perhaps it was time to call time on the whole thing and divorce ourselves; accept that we have gone our separate ways but remember the good times. That first half contained some duplicate material from the ‘warm-up’ section before Bravo Figaro, and it was material I had taken a dislike to, predominantly based around Mark’s disproportionate levels of hatred for the book One Day by David Nicholls. It’s not the target for his ire that I had an issue with – I have read it and I thought it was fine, but everyone is entitled to their own opinions – but I felt it was overblown, unnecessary and, most importantly, not funny. His description of the book makes it sound as though the book had raped his sister and given his mother cancer rather than been a self-important middle class fantasy love story that was perhaps a bit more successful than it deserved to be (which is a view I could understand a lot more). But I also felt that he went against himself in his character assassination of the book, as later on in the first half he mentions how he views books as sacred items – something which, it seems, they can only be if they meet with his approval. And, I mean, it’s not as if his target was Ayn Rand, a woman who’s literature is currently forming a central strand of political thinking in the Republicans in America, this is a book that will be largely forgotten in a few years time, it’s inoffensive, and it isn’t likely to be cited by George Osborne as the reason he’s cutting unemployment benefits; its effect on society will be minimal.

Anyway, Thomas used this description as a gateway into his forms of middle class urban terrorism which includes leaving heckles in the middle of books in Waterstones, putting his own versions of branded signs up in supermarkets and putting replacement posters over estate agents’ signs, each of which form a part of his 100 Acts of Minor Dissent.

And now I have to make a confession. At the interval I was sat in the lobby of the venue with my partner talking about the show. Our seats backed onto a wall and on the other side it’s entirely possible was Mark’s dressing room, because, you see, at the start of the second half Mark seemed to reflect back a couple of the comments I had made, namely that “someone isn’t sure if I’m being an activist or a comedian”. That isn’t quite the point I had been trying to make but it formed a part of the conversation we had had. The whole show had been introduced with Mark telling us he had to commit 100 Acts of Minor Dissent by the middle of May 2014 or he’d have to give money to UKIP. He never said why he had to do this. There was never an underlying point to the exercise, it seemed to just be a thing to do to make a show about, and this was the point I was trying to make. Is he doing these things because they will be funny and will give him material to entertain with, or is he doing them to make a point about the country and the world we live in and, in some way, to try to make things a little better be it through awareness or changing perceptions?

Another way you could look at it would be is he performing the Mark Thomas Comedy Product, or the Mark Thomas Product? A subtle distinction but perhaps an important one. The first half felt to me as though this was supposed to be the latter and yet the acts described tended to be somewhere between ‘quite amusing’ and ‘a bit dickish’.

I don’t know what changed – maybe my words (if they were my words that were overheard) came down like a challenge? Maybe I lightened up, or lowered my defences, or my expectations based on the 20 year relationship I’d had with Mark? Who knows? But in the second half I found the show hilarious. Something just clicked and it was like watching Sex Filth & Religion all over again. It was Thomas back to his comic best. A weight lifted off my shoulders. The insight was back. The skewering of the world we live in was as sharp as it ever was. The cheeky-chappy persona was front and centre (by which I mean that when Thomas is on top of his game he has a persona with which he can call you the strongest, rudest names under the sun and you still want to shake his hand). It was like we’d been through a long tunnel and had suddenly burst out into bright sunlight. This wasn’t a relationship that was on its last legs, this was a relationship that had been going a long time, there had been ups and downs, but there was a lot more life in it yet.

B+

Ha! And here’s Sex Filth & Religion so you can see for yourself what I mean.

Stewart Lee – Much A-Stew About Nothing

Stewart Lee – Much A-Stew About Nothing – Mayflower Theatre, Southampton – September 15, 2013

Stewart_Lee_Big

Honestly, this isn’t going to be much of a review. Stewart Lee is one of the best comedians around, but he operates on such a different wave length to anyone else, I’m not sure I can adequately sum either him or this show up. Much A-Stew About Nothing is actually 3 episodes of Lee’s forthcoming 3rd set of episodes of his BBC2 series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, and this was an opportunity to hone the material before that films.

Lee has previously stated an aim of producing a show without any punchlines whatsoever and a segment which involves him repeating the line “If you say you’re English they arrest you and throw you in jail” about 8 times shows how through context and inflection it’s possible (for him) to make almost anything funny without relying on the traditional structures or formulas of comedy. However, I am deeply aware this doesn’t read well.

Anyway, the show overall is incredibly funny and leaves me awaiting the the arrival of the new Comedy Vehicle. In the meantime, below you can find the first epsiode of the first season.

A

Adam Hills – Happyism

Adam Hills – Nuffield Theatre, Southampton – Sunday September 8, 2013

Happyism

The first two times I saw Adam Hills were at The Wedgewood Rooms in Portsmouth, a nice intimate venue housing about 150 people, but this marks the first time I’ve seen him in a larger venue. It’s clear that Hills has done well out of the 2012 Paralympics and the Channel 4 show, The Last Leg, which span out of it, and it’s also clear that the show has brought a slightly different audience to the theatre than you see at many comedy gigs when most of the ‘heckling’ comes from cystic fibrosis sufferers and wheelchair users.

That said, I don’t really like labeling it heckling, though that is what Hills calls it. I always think of heckling as a negative thing, with abuse being hurled at the comic on stage, while this is entirely good natured and, indeed, part of the show. Hills makes a point of saying (as he did on previous occasions I’ve seen him) that, while he has some funny stories to impart, his favourite parts of the show have always been chatting with the audience and it’s something he excels at.

This may sound like a criticism but I assure you it’s not. Hills is not the kind of comedian to rattle off jokes, to leave the audience swimming in punchlines. His stage persona is that of a thoroughly lovely chap that’d relish spending time with (at the two Portsmouth gigs he fed the entire audience pizza), and he makes a 700 seater venue feel like hanging out at a bar having a chat. He lulls everyone into such a sense of security that when he asks someone a question they’re liable to give away more than wanted. It’s never spiteful though and, again, more like the friendly ribbing friends would give at a bar.

Happyism does have a theme (loosely) holding it together, and it is very Adam Hills, reveling in happiness and positivity. Hills is someone you can guarantee will give you an enjoyable evening. He doesn’t do anything revolutionary with the format, but the upbeat atmosphere is enough to win over even the hardest of hearts.

B+

Robin & Josie’s Shambles

Robin Ince and Josie Long – Robin & Josie’s Shampbles – South Street Arts Centre, Reading – Saturday September 7, 2013

In keeping with the Shambles theme, there doesn't appear to be a proper poster for the tour dates, just this for a related venture

In keeping with the Shambles theme, there doesn’t appear to be a proper poster for the tour dates, just this for a related venture

It’s slightly unfair reviewing this show, seeing as how it’s a late addition to the schedule and is intended to be a bit of a shambles (hence the name) rather than a structured and coherent piece. But then I paid £12.50 per ticket to go, so what the hey. I’ll keep it brief though.

What structuring there is of the show is that Robin and Josie will take it in turns to do their own bits, be on stage together some of the time, and at the end of each half singer/songwriter Grace Petrie gives us a few numbers.

Having seen Robin Ince a fair few times before, he is his usual shambolic self here, in as much as he normally comes on stage with 10 stories to tell the audience and will manage to complete five of them, which five will differ from night to night. Having a fair few years of experience now, Ince has a wealth of material and can easily fill the his time on stage with a variety of stories old and new while still failing to do everything he set out to. It’s all very funny and in keeping with what you’d expect from the man.

Josie Long as someone I’d not seen live before, though TV, radio and podcasts had filled me in on the kind of thing to expect. Unfortunately, the material she’d prepared for her solo section feels a little slapdash and half-hearted. I don’t know if it was because she wanted to prepare something new, where Ince was essentially using elements of other shows and anecdotes to fill his time, but there was a sense that she knew it wasn’t her grade A material, or that it was a work in progress, to be worked into shape later.

Long’s banter with Ince was much better, with the couple (not in that way) having a great rapport and not afraid to annoy the other, much to our collective amusement.

Finally there was Grace Petrie, a protest (and occasional comedy) songwriter, who’s two stints on the stage came as a surprise to me (and perhaps some other members of the audience). I had heard Petrie perform on Radio 4’s The Now Show with a number she reprised in this show. I don’t want to review Petrie on the basis that her music isn’t the kind of thing I gravitate towards and so my views aren’t really going to be relevant. She’s clearly a more-than-competent songwriter, with a good, strong voice and some pleasant tunes, and she was very well received by the other members of the audience. I wish her every success…

B

There’s no suitable clip available of Robin and Josie, so here’s a TED talk by Robin Ince instead, and below that is a clip of Josie on One Night Stand…

The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon – Prince of Wales Theatre, London

Hello!

Hello!

The Book of Mormon may be Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s first stage musical but it’s far from their first foray into songwriting as anyone familiar with their work on South Park the TV show, South Park: The Movie, Team America or even Baseketball would know.

The show is both profane and scatological on a frequent basis but the one thing it isn’t, and this may surprise you, is mean-spirited. Indeed, the show has been so welcomed by the Church of Jesus Christ & The Latter Day Saints (AKA the Mormons) that the program for the show is littered with adverts for the church. However, I don’t think the show is going to be making any converts.

The story concerns two elders in the church, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who are sent on missionary work to Uganda. Elder Price is the perfect, straight-laced, by-the-book Mormon who has been praying to be sent to Orlando but instead is paired with needy, nerdy, compulsive liar Elder Cunningham on his mission.

In Uganda they meet challenges they were ill-prepared for – famine, poverty, AIDS, and a Chieftain obsessed with female circumcision – and are faced with the prospect of trying to convince the locals that their lives can be made better by joining the church.

The show is frequently hilarious while the songs are both catchy (see opening number, “Hello!”, below) and satirical – a stand out number is a retort to The Lion King’s Hakuna Matata entitled Hasa Diga Eebowai, the translation of which shocks the missionaries to the core but somehow seems to offer the locals a sliver of comfort.

Before seeing the show I had read some criticism of the show for presenting a racist view of Africa but, again, I think that what is portrayed is carefully chosen and satirical, reflecting and skewering the views of the Western world (though as a white man who has never visited Africa, I’m probably not best placed to make that call).

Ultimately, the show is a triumph and, while I rarely see any musical theatre, offers something different from the majority of shows you’ll see (and an antidote to The Lion King which, it could be argued, presents a more racially troubling version of the continent than seen here).

At the end of the day, The Book of Mormon is a must see.

A

Finally – if you can’t wait/can’t make it to the theatre, the soundtrack is available on Spotify.

Matt Parker – The Number Ninja

Matt Parker – The Number Ninja – The Spring, Havant – Friday May 24, 2013

Yes, that scarf does have a binary ASCII message in it

Yes, that scarf does have a binary ASCII message in it

There’s a chance you recognise Matt Parker’s name from The Festival of the Spoken Nerd (reviewed here). You may also have heard him on Radio 4’s Infinite Monkey Cage – and if you don’t listen to that, why don’t you?, and he’s also popped up in the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast and a few other places. As science has become cooler (thanks Brian Cox), Parker is one of the people who has started to make his name in the media on the back of it.

Originally from Perth, Australia, Parker came to the UK to teach maths at Secondary school but quickly found that neither Slough nor the English youth were as appealing as they had once seemed. Having dabbled in stand-up comedy in his spare time, luck and hard work has brought him to touring his show, The Number Ninja, nationwide.

The show draws obvious comparisons with Spoken Nerd and is largely more successful thanks to the focus on one performer and one aspect of science. Where Spoken Nerd spread itself across a selection of unrelated but amusing scientific ephemera and some slightly over-rehearsed bits of comic banter, here the only relationship that matters is between Parker and his audience, something which is winningly established right from the get-go with some off-hand remarks about the local venue.

While I had seen most of the elements of the first half of the show in a combination of Spoken Nerd and other Parker appearances, the show doesn’t suffer for it, and the audience reacts strongly to all of the material on display. Some of the mathematical tricks on display – calculating the last digit of a UK bar code, ascertaining the cube route of some astonishingly high numbers – reminded me of some of the fascinating insights found in Alex Bellos‘ brilliant book Alex’s Adventures in Numberland.

All that praise said, however, the show still lacks a narrative thread to it. Maths is a broad church and, given the apparent numeracy of the crowd (many of whom have brought calculators, several attend MathsJam events), the elements picked out here lack a cohesion or anything truly illuminating. When Parker does aim for something more in-depth, bringing Graham’s Number to our attention, his entry point around X Factor singing combinations doesn’t adequately link to the point his is making about the number itself, and neither does the punchline really link back to the set-up.

The Number Ninja is a very entertaining night out, and there’s no doubt that the entire audience enjoyed the show. However, for the show to take that step up to being truly unmissable it’s clear some refinement is in order. As a suggestion out of left-field, perhaps a lesson could be taken from some of Mark Thomas’ work, or the Mark Steel Lectures. Both of these comics took stories they were fascinated by or had become involved in and turned them into comic lectures. There’s a wide world of numbers out there, and there are a lot of characters involved in the theories and formulations through the ages. By telling a coherent story that enlightens the audience but still indulges Parker’s own lust for numerical nerdiness, he could be on to a true winner.

But these are early days for this show, and shows of this type in general. There’s a huge amount of promise here, and a hugely enjoyable show, especially when things start to get really meta…

B

The second half of the show opens with the video below: Calculating Pi With Pies