Monday, 31 March 2008

Reverend Obadiah Steppenwolf III, Gary Little, Chris Forbes, Ailsa Johnston, compere Craig Hill - The Stand, Edinburgh, 20/03/2008

It’s a strange situation when you go to a comedy night and the MC is the biggest draw on the bill. Although less well known south of the border, Craig Hill (pictured) is something of a star name in his native Scotland. In fact, he was well known even before he was famous, such that here in Edinburgh people still remember him as the assistant at one of the Royal Mile souvenir shops who regularly accosted elderly American female tourists with free samples of shortbread by asking them if he could “tempt them with a finger.”

But since finding television fame on BBC2’s “Live Floor Show,” Craig has never looked back and is now a regular on local TV and radio. A natural entertainer, almost a force of nature, he bursts onto the stage with the energy of several atom bombs, resplendent in muscle shirt and army camouflage kilt, performing a gyrating hi-energi dance to Jackie Wilson’s Reet Petite, and generally camping it up so that you would be forgiven for mistaking him for the secret love child of Liberace and Danny LaRue.

Craig could be the perfect compere, he has the ability to have any audience eating out of his hands within minutes of taking to the stage. His only problem is a tendency to overshadow the other acts on the bill. But that isn’t a problem for the audience, as evidenced when he asked a middle-aged guest house owner in the front row who had never been to a comedy show before why he chose this as his first one, and received the pointed answer, “because of you.”

Another unusual aspect of this particular night at The Stand was that the entire bill was exclusively Scottish. The first act was Chris Forbes, a young comic from Bridge of Weir, whose set, I have to say, was variable. He was entertaining enough, as such, but doing the opening spot, I got the distinct impression that he had not long stepped up to this level, and was trying to stretch material that wasn’t quite enough to fill the allotted stage time. His opening was sound enough, a pedantic examination of a New Scientist article on environmentally friendly arms trading. But by the end of the set he was giving the audience rather too graphic descriptions of his bowel movements, which in all honesty smacked a little of desperation.

I wasn’t overly impressed with Ailsa Johnston either, but I think that may have been more my problem than hers. The best comedy comes from recognition of the situation, and Johnson, groomed up to the nines with more make-up than an air stewardess and a fake tan that could blind at ninety paces, based most of her humour around the experience of being the kind of girl whose interests in life are clubbing and shagging and whose cultural heroes are Jordan and Jodie Marsh. It all seemed to go down well in certain sections of the room, but I’m afraid it left me stone cold.

Things improved somewhat when Gary Little took the stage. An old hand at this game now, and one of those comics that you would know by sight even if you didn’t recognise the name, Little clearly has a wealth of material from which to pick and choose. But even here things were a little off, and as a lengthy routine about a lads stag party trip to Auschwitz, which promised great things, fizzled out without anything resembling a punchline, it seemed to me like the whole night was starting to feel a little flat.

Maybe at such times, that’s when you need a little old time religion to see you right. And if you can’t get any of that, the Reverend Obadiah Steppenwolf III will have to do as a substitute. A character based act, the creation of comic Jim Muir, the good reverend staggers onto the stage in a grubby white suit, beer bottle clutched in each hand, and rips into the miserable sinners gathered before him with the brain-addled logic of a wino. In all honesty, hiding behind this persona is mainly an excuse for Muir to spend the majority of his stage time hurling abuse out into the audience, but he does it so well that it is enough.

Perhaps it was just that Steppenwolf is one of the few acts around with a personality big enough to stand up alongside our Craig (bless his little cotton socks.) But it rounded off the evening perfectly, and left the impression of a night which, if it wasn’t among the best of Stand experiences, was at least good enough.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Dwight Slade - The Stand, Edinburgh, 18/03/2008

It can’t be easy living in the shadow of genius. To most people, if they know of Dwight Slade at all, it is as Bill Hicks’ best friend and former writing partner. Even now, fourteen years after his death and more than a quarter of a century after they went their separate ways, it is still a role he is defined by, so much so that he even makes oblique reference to the fact in his own introduction. Yet the truth is, Slade has been out on his own since well before Hicks’ rise to prominence, and if he hasn’t quite reached the same level of eminence, he has at least made it to somewhere near the top of the comedy tree, not through association, but on his own merits.

This was his last performance in Europe before heading back to his home in Seattle the next day, and for an artist more used to performing on big stages and Comedy Central TV specials, maybe a wet Tuesday night in a basement in Scotland might have seemed something of a comedown. But if so, it didn’t show, and though his name might not mean so much on this side of the Atlantic, for those in the know, a decent sized crowd including Scottish TV comedian Craig Hill, it was a rare chance to see one of America’s brightest talents at work at close quarters.

Like Hicks, Slade’s comedy is mostly based on being slightly pissed off with the stupidity of the world. But where they differ is that Slade clearly still cares whether or not the audience like him at the end of the show. He never quite goes for the jugular, careful not to cross over that line of making his audience feel uncomfortable. But nonetheless, he has a wealth of strong material to draw on, and surely one of the advantages for a US based comedian playing over here is that he can pick and choose the best parts of many years worth of shows, secure in the knowledge that he has an audience coming to it with fresh ears.

Occasionally this doesn’t quite work. Performing material about having just had his fortieth birthday, for instance, seems slightly incongruous when you do the maths and realise he has to be closer to fifty, but what it does do is allow him to perform for a full two hours without ever running out of steam or suffering any serious dip in quality.

The overriding theme of the show is that of the difference between rational and irrational behaviour, characterised by those who listen to the Evil Monkey which sits on your shoulder telling you to do all the things you really want to do but know you shouldn’t. Much of this focusing on the general self-absorbed behaviour of others, from people with hands free phones shouting in the supermarket to the guy on the plane rubbing his backside against your face while trying to fit his baggage in the overhead locker. And most of it results in the object of his fury meeting with a violent response at the sharp end of his imaginary pool-cue.

Meanwhile, the highlight of the show is a five minute set-piece mime in which Slade demonstrates to the audience why car radios are a far greater hazard to the road user than alcohol. Contorting his body as he tunes from station to station, each song provoking an exaggerated response from headbanging to disco dancing, it’s clearly a well rehearsed routine honed to perfection.

Slade is an infrequent visitor to our country, but luckily for us he enjoys coming here because it allows him to say the things he can’t get away with in his native land. So hopefully it won’t be too long before he feels the need to let off steam on our shores once again. When he does, seek him out, because you will find it well worth the effort.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Jo Caulfield, Wilson Dixon, Donnchadh O'Conaill, Andrew O'Neill, compere Sandy Nelson - The Stand, Edinburgh, 15/03/2008

Saturday nights at the Stand can usually command a pretty strong line-up, but it has to be said that this was one of the strongest. When even the ten minute spot is occupied by a recognisable name comedian, you know you are onto a winner.

The quality showed right from the very beginning, as Sandy Nelson proved himself to be a quite excellent MC with just the right qualities needed for that job. He knows exactly when to push and when to hold back, and exactly where the line is to keep the audience on his side and having a good time. On this evening his job is made much easier by a family from Livingstone on the front row out to celebrate their daughter’s particular milestone birthday which she really didn’t want discussed.

Donnchadh O’Conaill’s job as the opening act was not made easy by a disturbance going on to one side of the club which resulted in some patrons being ejected. But he dealt with the matter well, and with humour, and while his set wasn’t the brightest of the night, he nonetheless gave a good account of himself. A gangly blonde-haired Irishman, his slow-paced, downbeat humour was mainly based in his own social awkwardness. But if that sounds depressing, it’s the care with which he has put his set together with a marvellous mastery of wordplay that ensures that it isn’t. Relatively new to the scene, after winning the Chortle Student Comedy award two years ago, he isn’t the finished article quite yet. But he shows enough to be able to predict that he eventually will be.

It was strange seeing Andrew O’Neill, now a battle-hardened Fringe veteran of many years’ standing, in the slot usually reserved for relative newcomers. But in a way it was a good spot for him, because it forced him to tighten up his usually surreal and meandering monologues which can take a while for an audience to get into. He still produced a number of his bizarre trademark asides, bursting onto the stage with a song about a hot bus. But his bizarre goth appearance tells the audience straight away not to expect straightforward humour, and spending most of his set discussing the problems of being a heterosexual transvestite, while certainly unconventional, seems to work very well.

The slight leftfield approach to the evening continued into Wilson Dixon’s set. Dixon is a musical comedian with a character based set. With an improbably large ten gallon hat and obviously fake long hair, he introduces himself as a country singer from Cripple Creek in the Rocky Mountains, and frequently relies for laughs on wrong-footing the audience, setting up jokes so you think you know where they are heading before sending them in totally unexpected directions for the punchline. Between the songs his softly spoken drawl is sometimes a little hard to hear, but it is worth listening to.

Jo Caulfield
has, over the last decade, become one of the most successful and instantly recognised female comics in the country. Known for her frequent appearances on panel shows such as Mock the Week and HIGNFY, she also has her own Radio 4 series, and was head writer for So Graham Norton. All of which is merely background to the fact that she is also a damned fine stand-up.

Her comedy has always been slightly barbed, that of a person irritated that the world is mostly populated by dimwits, and she adopts a style where she is your acerbic best friend embarking with you on a marathon bitching session. And of course it works because, for the most part, we agree with every word she says. However, there was a sense in the show that this was a case of getting a bit more mileage out of last year’s material before developing a new show in time for the Fringe, and some sections felt a little dated. It could be said to be a bit lazy to still be doing gags about John Smeaton and the Glasgow airport attack a year on.

That said, for the most part the set had a little bit for everyone, using a general scattergun approach, and she is a hard act not to warm to. And after three slightly unconventional acts, it was probably best to end with a safe pair of hands, with the overall result of a highly successful night all round.

Friday, 21 March 2008

I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue - Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff 14/03/08

Jeremy Hardy and Tim Brooke-Taylor

I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue has been a one of the nations favourite comedy radio shows for over 35 years, since its creation in 1972. During the course of its time at the BBC 50 series have been recorded and tickets to see recordings of the radio show can sell out huge venues within hours and without advertising.

The show grew out of an earlier radio show called I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, a show where the characters would get up to madcap mischievous adventures full of marvellously bad word play. Clue, described as the "antidote to panel games", provided a platform for the same humour, but without the need for a script!

People are now being given a greater opportunity to see the show, as the panel Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, Barry Cryer and frequent guest Jeremy Hardy have taken the show on its first ever national tour.

The live show with Humphrey Lyttelton obviously in the chair and the nations favourite ivory tinkler, Colin Sell, at the piano, contains many of the favourite games from the radio including Sound Charades, New Definitions (aka entries for the Uxbridge English Dictionary), One Song to the Tune of the Other, and Mornington Crescent. And while the show is primarily based around the spoken, actually seeing the show gives it a whole extra dimension, especially in the sound effects rounds.

The show is currently in the second leg of its first UK tour and getting tickets to any of the remaining shows is likely to prove difficult, but the show is a gem and likely to tour again, given the reception it has received. Keep your eyes peeled!

Jason Cook, Stu and Garry, Vladimir McTavish, Antony Murray, compere Ro Campbell - The Stand, Edinburgh, 12/03/2008

A charity show is always a difficult one to review, because you are aware that the acts on the bill are all giving their time for free to raise money for a good cause. Obviously this is a laudable act, and thus any criticism of them makes you feel like you are kicking a puppy just a little bit. However, like any comedy night, this benefit on behalf of the First Step Community Project, a group who provide support to children growing up in difficult circumstances, had its good moments and some not so good.

Compere Ro Campbell is an excitable and slightly brash Australian for whom, it has to be said, the role doesn’t show him in his best light. He does the job sufficiently, but doesn’t show the spark that the best MC’s display. He runs through the usual “where are you from, what do you do” routine, but never manages to extract the comedy gold. On the other hand, when he moves on to parts of his set material, he begins to shine, and there are a few moments of brilliance, especially while recounting tales of his days as “the man who holds the Golf Sale sign.”

First up for the night was Antony Murray, a tall and slightly geeky Scotsman whose set is mostly based around perceived social inadequacy and intellectual unhipness. He does a decent job, but is something of a slow burn comic and as such probably isn’t right for the opening spot which really needs someone who is going to hit the stage and make an impact.

Vladimir McTavish follows him, and it is interesting to see someone who would normally be the headline act performing in a short early bill spot. Much of his set was familiar from seeing him only a few weeks before, but there was a bit of new stuff thrown in, suggesting he is starting to road test new material ready for the summer. Either way, he is always a solid and popular performer and he set up the rest of the night well.

Stu and Garry are the Stand’s resident improvisational double act, and have been working together so long that they are totally comfortable with each other and the situation. Complementing each other well, the tall skinny Garry Dobson with long hair and improbably long chin beard is the flighty, slightly weird one, while short and stocky Stuart Murphy is the cheeky overgrown schoolboy. They run through a series of familiar “Whose Line Is It Anyway” type games, creating bizarre situations from audience suggestions, which results in such unlikely situations as a row in a gay partnership performed as an opera.

Top of the bill, Jason Cook until recently would have been better known as one half of the novelty German Electronic Industrial Rock send-up act Die Clattershenkenfietermaus. But in the past year he has been making a name for himself with his excellent “My Confessions” show, which he had actually been performing in the Glasgow Comedy Festival earlier that evening before rushing over to the capital to put in his appearance. His set was a mixture of material from that show, which I saw last summer, together with some new observations, mostly based around the idea that he is his own worst enemy and the inner voices that most of us try not to listen to usually get the better of him. With the more poignant moments removed, the material doesn’t have the same emotional impact as the full Confessions show, but Cook still retains the Geordie charm that allows him to get away with telling horrible stories about himself and yet remaining somehow loveable.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Dara O'Briain - Edinburgh Playhouse - 09/03/2008

Comedy, I’ve always felt, works best in small packed clubs, with a low ceiling and a busy bar and a general buzz about the atmosphere. Move it to the wide open expanses of a three tiered theatre with the audience sitting in uniform rows, and it’s a rare comedian who can make the experience seem as intimate and personal. Dara O’Briain is one of that rare breed.

His is a rise to the top that took me rather by surprise. Living in Ireland, as I did, for four years, I first encountered him as the presenter of the RTE topical entertainment show The Panel, at which time his name would have meant nothing to most people on this side of the Irish Sea. But a couple of appearances guest-presenting HIGNFY changed all that, and suddenly he was a household name with his own BBC panel show and a thriving career, and now, just a few years later, not only is he selling out huge theatre tours, but people are even starting to learn how to pronounce his surname properly.

What makes O’Briain a great stand-up is the same quality that makes him a great topical TV show presenter, it’s his quickness of brain which allows him to probe any topic thrown at him and quickly find the funny within. He has also been blessed with a physical form which might be a disadvantage in any other line of work, but part of what makes him so funny is that his material consists of the last things you would expect to emerge from a prematurely balding six feet four walking giant with the grace and stylish appearance of an assistant bank manager.

Of course, he has also been blessed with that other great comedy attribute of his race, the lilting east-coast Irish accent that can take even the foulest obscenity and make it sound like poetry in your ears. Ireland has always punched above its weight in comedy terms, and Dara makes a fine continuation of that tradition.

He tells the audience that he considered naming the show “You Had To Be There,” as a reference to those moments of hilarity in life that suffer in the re-telling. The idea being that unlike going to see a movie, every night of a comedy show is unique and, if the comedian is good enough and allows it to progress naturally, will go off in its own never-to-be-repeated directions.

And that’s exactly what happens. There is a clear structure to the show, and a number of obviously well-rehearsed routines, laying into homeopaths and nutritionists as being no better than witch doctors, or discussing why obviously one-sided issues on news programmes are forced to show the other side for “balance.” A lengthy routine about boat tours visiting the homes of the rich and famous in Florida, and the excitement of the famous being counteracted by the disappointment at the merely rich, ends in a gloriously surreal moment after which you will never be able to hear “The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” and think of Gloria Estefan in quite the same way again.

But these are enhanced by the often inspired rants prompted by his randomly chosen audience victims, on this night a hospitality management teacher, a have-a-go anti bicycle-theft warrior and a man who manages the electrical and entertainment department at Tesco. All are deftly dealt with in a manner which is mocking but never crosses the line into causing offence.

O’Briain’s rise to the top of the tree may have been comparatively swift, but one cannot imagine him taking the Russell Brand, Eddie Izzard, Lee Evans route of Hollywood glitz and glamour. He is too much of a down-to-earth guy, his feet are too firmly fixed on the ground. And that’s good news for us, because it means we can look forward to seeing him making these same packed houses laugh like eejits for many years to come.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Toby Hadoke - Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf

Toby Hadoke
Toby Hadoke's stand up show based around his love of Doctor Who is something that I have been meaning to see since I was in Edinburgh two years ago, and caught a few glimpses of him as he took part in an afternoon sketch show called "Soup" upstairs in the Café Royal. At the time he was performing Moths in the evenings, but had revealed his astonishing memory and passion for the doctor briefly during one performance of Soup. Toby is an accomplished comedian, has appeared on various things of stage and screen that may explain why you think he's slightly familiar, and also manages and compères XS Malarkey, the Manchester comedy club.

The show Moths Ate My "Doctor Who" Scarf, which has also been recorded for radio, is perfect for those who love the Doctor as well as for those who barely know the show. Toby tells the story of the Doctor, but also tells the story of a kid who was a bit of an outsider finding something special, of a man becoming a father, of politics past and present...the stories are both touching and funny.
Mostly though, the show is a chance for Doctor Who fans to relive a lot of memories and for fans and non fans alike to laugh a lot and have a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

(The fact that this particular show was in Cardiff, and the theatre right next to Torchwood, added an extra geeky joy to the evening.)

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Laughing Horse New Act Competition – Edinburgh Quarter Final – Meadows Bar, 07/03/2008

The New Act of the Year contest organised by Laughing Horse has become something of a fixture on the comedy calendar, and in previous years has produced winners who have gone on to much bigger and better things, including Greg Davies, Marek Larwood, Russell Kane and Carl Donnelly. This year’s competition started all the way back at the beginning of January, and culminates in a final in Wimbledon on May 18th.

Whether the name that joins the list of winners this year will have emerged from this, the only quarter final being held outside the London area, is debatable. There were, to my mind, three acts who might be in contention, but only two of them were selected among the four to continue to the semi finals in London, so that shows how much I know.

The acts, it must be said, had a few things to contend with on the night. Firstly there is the shape of the room, being sort of L-shaped with the stage located at the corner meant that there were two distinct audience sections parts of which were not visible to each other. More important, however, were the three Englishmen up for the rugby who sat in the front row and spent the entire evening trying to make the night all about them.

This was a problem, because the acts ranged from obvious beginners to those who clearly had a few years of experience behind them, and it handed an advantage to this latter group in that they were more well versed in dealing with these kinds of situation. Although for the most part the night was well MC’d by Jojo Sutherland, I felt she was a little at fault here for not cracking down hard on the trio and making them scared to open their mouths. On an open mike night it would be fine, a bit of audience heckling sorts out the men from the boys, but in competition I thought the performers needed a bit more protection.

First act up was Gus Tawse, whose act was rather too hesitant for my liking. His gags seemed to suffer from too much set-up with not enough pay-off. The Wee Man followed, a novelty act based around the Ned persona, a kind of Scottish Chav. He dealt well with the audience and had some inventive moments, but I can’t help feeling that his exaggerated thick nasal accent would grate on the nerves after a while.

Jill Baxter was an act I came away feeling sorry for. She seemed to have half the audience there to cheer for her, and I think it was a serious mistake. She looked nervous and hesitant from the word go, continually lost her thread, and for the most part her set was met by a stony silence and just a few chuckles.

Graham Mackie followed on after, and here one has to ask what constitutes a new act. Mackie is a veteran of the Scottish circuit, but qualified as he was doing a ventriloquist routine rather than his usual straight stand-up. The other problem I had with the act was that I never quite worked out whether it was supposed to be intentionally dreadful. I hope so, because otherwise it was unintentionally so. But even taking the former option, I think that like Les Dawson’s piano playing or Tommy Cooper’s magic, you need to be exceptionally good at something before you can make a success of doing it badly. This just came off as being a bit of a shambles, and I think Mackie should probably stick to what he does best in future.

Daniel Webster was the final act of the first section. Clearly heavily influenced by Steven Wright, his act consisted of surreal non-sequiters performed in a slow dream-like way, and here was one occasion that the heckling Englishmen did some serious damage to what could otherwise have been a very funny performance.

Barry McDonald opened the second section and for my money gave the best performance of the night. His act was polished, confident and flowed well, and although I had only seen him performing the same material the previous weekend, with the five minute time limitation for the contest he tightened it up and it worked much better than before.

Martin McAllister has a very slow style to his comedy that probably doesn’t suit a competition format. During his allotted five minutes he only managed to work his way through three gags, and perhaps if he had some quicker fire material this would have been a more sensible option. He was followed on by Geordie comic Chris Ramsay who was probably the first of the night to really take a firm control of the audience. His material was good and performed with enthusiasm and he quickly had the room on his side.

Such could not be said about Gareth Johnson. With a geeky haircut and bumfluff that could be licked off by a cat, he opened with an attempt at highbrow material by deconstructing a line of Shakespeare, before moving to the other end of the spectrum with sick humour and filth. Both committed the ultimate sin of being simply unfunny, although they might have killed at the chess club. By the end of his set the audience was left wondering that if this was a quarter final, how bad were the other acts in his heat?

Sean McLaughlin then had the difficult job of picking the room back up, and he did okay, although I think again he probably chose the wrong material, doing a lengthy routine about the fact that he has a medical condition which makes sex painful. But I got the impression that he was quite new to the stage, and has the potential to get better.

The third section of the night began with Carly Baker, a tall skinny American with flame red hair. Hers was another assured and confident performance, she made short work of the English hecklers, and performed a clever, slightly filthy set that belied her “cute soccer mom” appearance. Andy Learmonth was also good, his set appearing to be a series of one digression after another which somehow all hung together very well.

Tommy McKay is a musical comedy act who performed two songs with a guitar. The first, about things he had bought on ebay, appeared to consist just of stupid things he could think of that rhymed, while the second, about Jeremy Paxman farting on Newsnight, just seemed a bit pointless. Neither was particularly funny. Finally Jeff O’Boyle was a decent enough closing act, but some of his material seemed slightly forced, and he should probably have dropped his closing “M&S” gag for being too similar to a routine performed by one of the other comics earlier in the night.

So overall it was a bit of a night of ups and downs, and it seemed to go on forever, the results not being announced until well after midnight. But for all that, there were some very good moments, and one or two acts to keep an eye out for in future.

As for the results, Carly Baker was adjudged to have won the night, with Barry McDonald, Andy Learmonth and The Wee Man also going through to the semis. Personally I thought Chris Ramsay deserved a place, probably at the expense of the Wee Man whose appeal I see as being rather limited, but the other three choices I would have to agree with.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Natalie Haynes, Susan Calman - The Stand, Edinburgh, 04/03/2008

Officially, this was billed as a “Wicked Wenches Special” to tie in with the club’s monthly night dedicated to female comedians. In reality, however, it was essentially a stop off in Natalie Haynes latest club tour with Susan Calman, billed as MC but actually serving as more of a support act.

The diminutive Ms Calman opened up the evening with a set of around half an hour, starting with the usual MC type “chatting to the front row” duties, served well on this night by the fact that it seemed to be almost entirely occupied by upper middle-class Edinburgh University students, including the impossibly posh “Flick” whose cut-glass vowels led Calman to suggest recreating “The Running Man” by dropping her off in the middle of George Square in Glasgow and seeing how far she could get.

She proves herself an accomplished compere, but if I have a criticism, it is that she probably did a little too much of the audience interaction, on a night that didn’t really need it. On a usual club night it would have been fine, but on this occasion, most people had come specifically to see a “name” comedian and didn’t necessarily need so much warming up. So it might have been nice to see more of her set material, because when it came it was very good, particularly her routine on what a crap superhero she would make.

It seems strange that Natalie Haynes has now been performing comedy for over a decade, because when she started out it was still very much a male dominated field, and the few females able to make it usually had to do so by compromising their femininity. So it can’t have been an easy task for a relatively well-balanced, Cambridge educated and, let’s not beat about the bush, rather easy on the eye woman to try to break into that world. But break into it she did, becoming in the process not only a well respected headline act, but winning herself regular TV and radio work as well as a gig as a columnist for The Times into the bargain.

Haynes charm lies in a slightly warped world view combined with a liberal sprinkling of nerdishness. There are few stand-up shows you can attend, for instance, where it helps to have a comprehensive knowledge of US daytime detective shows Monk, Murder She Wrote and Diagnosis: Murder. Not that it’s essential, you understand, but it does help. These, together with a thorough deconstruction of the plot of Logan’s Run do form a sizeable segment of the show.

We are also treated to a lesson in Latin grammar demonstrating very conclusively why the “C” word is actually far more pleasant than the “V” word when referring to female genitalia, which bizarrely leads to an explanation of why Pythagoras probably got more than his fair share of chicks. And in less random moments she explains to us the etiquette of swimming-pool bullying, the fact that she turned down the opportunity to torture fellow vegetarians in order to entertain us, the moral implications of buying Ikea furniture, and how IQ is related to pram size.

Haynes performance seems effortless, but is often delivered at such breakneck speed that you find yourself marvelling that her mind manages to keep pace with her mouth. Like the best comics she manages to take huge circular digressions without ever losing the thread of the show. And although she fits more material into an hour and a quarter than some manage in an entire career, still the time seems almost too short and you would happily go on listening to her skewed logic all night.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Five Questions: Robin Ince

He won the 2006 Time Out Award for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy, largely for his 'Book Club' nights. A friend of Ricky Gervais, he's appeared in 'The Office' and supported Gervais on the 'Politics' tour. He's written for 'Have I Got News For You', 'Alistair McGowan's Big Impression', 'The 11 O'Clock Show' and 'Dead Ringers'. And he's a thoroughly bloody nice bloke who can take a critical review in good grace. He, ladies and gentlemen, is Robin Ince.

What made you want to be a comedian in the first place?

I was brought up on The Goodies and Laurel and Hardy, then when I was in my very early teens, the alternative comedy explosion began and I was hooked on 'The Comic Strip Presents', Kevin Turvey and 'The Young Ones'. Rik Mayall is a comic genius in his wide-eyed portrayal of manic intensity and social embarrassment. Rather than scribbling the names of bands on my exercise books, I would scrawl the names of 'Comic Strip' episodes, attempting to perfectly match each individual font. By my mid teens I started to visit the Comedy Store and The Chuckle Club, delighting in acts such as Freddie Benson (aka Andrew Bailey), Tony Allen and The Joan Collins Fan Club (later Julian Clary). So I started shouting into microphones in my early twenties and now, at 39, I still do.

What's been your best gig to date?

I thoroughly enjoyed the gig I did last night at the Clockwork Comedy Club, a reasonably formless and unplanned 30 minutes of rage and ridiculousness. I also usually love doing benefit gigs at the Hammersmith Apollo, a 3500 seater that seems strangely intimate. I performed predominantly new material at the Stand Up For Animals gig and then ended the night dressed as a bear being kicked by Bill Bailey’s son while Bill and Tim Minchin played a wonderful song.

And your worst?

I am a reasonably harsh critic, so there are many gigs I haven’t enjoyed or have damned in hindsight. My first proper death was at a club in Croydon and that was an eye-opener. While supporting Ricky Gervais on his 'Politics' tour I had a particularly hateful gig at the Palace Theatre, with drunk men in suits mumbling and no one really paying attention, I hated that one as it put me in such a bad mood that The Pixies gig I went to afterwards was ruined.

What's the best heckle you've ever received? And how did you respond?

I have no real memory for heckles, I was booed on at the Belfast Empire, so I responded by staying on stage for twice as long as I was meant to.

Which other comedians do you most admire?

Billy Connolly, Laurel and Hardy, Simon Munnery, and Steve Merchant’s stand up makes me weep. The list is long.

What are you working on at the moment, and what does the future hold?

I am currently working on series 3 of 'Skins' and writing a macabre screenplay. I am also touring around art centres with a work in progress, promising a new hour every month as I slowly put together my next tour which won’t be until 2009. I am also writing and recording a documentary for Radio 4 about the time my record collection was destroyed by sewage. I have a replacement for the 'Book Club' night, called 'The School for Gifted Children' which mixes bluegrass with mini lectures and songs. Last week I ended up performing a double act with Alexei Sayle - beware Cannon and Ball.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

A national joke

What made BBC4's 'Rob Brydon's Identity Crisis' watchable wasn't just the way in which the comedian exiled in London for 20 years came to feel his roots so much more strongly for spending some time in the land of his fathers - by the end, any ambivalence about personal identity had been resolved, with Brydon once more a proudly self-confessed Welshman, much to his own surprise.

No, the interest also lay in the programme's exposure of the stand-up's art. Brydon was shown trying to construct a set of material about his home country, "borrowing" the comments of those he encountered where he could and then puzzling over how to pitch it right. At the first of his Welsh gigs, at the Glee Club in Cardiff, he suffered the indignity of a seriously lukewarm reception, but, led to reflect on his generally critical and sneering tone, subsequently modified his approach so as to be warmer, more inclusive and less superior - and in Pontardawe and particularly Aberdare it paid huge dividends.

What's more, in showing Brydon backstage, pacing backwards and forwards uncomfortably and impatiently, the programme also served as a reminder that even well-established and experienced stand-ups can suffer from pre-show nerves. It's a odd compulsion, to willingly choose to put yourself on a pedestal to be judged by a bunch of complete strangers (to paraphrase Stewart Lee), but thankfully there are plenty of people prepared to do it.

(The programme's still available to watch on iPlayer for the next couple of days.)

Monday, 3 March 2008

PBH at 60 (part two)

What a difference a day makes, as the old song goes. And never more appropriately, as the second night of the Edinburgh leg of Peter Buckley Hill’s 60th birthday celebrations could not have been more different from the first if it had tried. In one way this was a good thing, as there was certainly a larger audience making the room look rather less threadbare. But unfortunately it was not all good news.

PBH started the night off again with a mix of banter and comedy songs, a much longer set than the previous night and this, I suspect, had a lot to do with the gentleman sitting front and centre who unfortunately seemed unfamiliar with the concept of a comedy show and spent the entire performance trying to join in. The result was that every time PBH had started to build momentum and get the mood of the room rising, a wholly inappropriate interruption at exactly the wrong moment would ruin whatever payoff he was building to, and he would have to start all over again.

The problem, of course, is that when you are trying to run a friendly gig in a small room, a harsh put-down could have killed the mood altogether, and the result was that he just had to try to work around the problem, throwing out an admonition to “heckle in the gaps” and leaving it at that.

Matters were not improved by the appearance of David Heffron. An experienced club circuit comedian, I can only imagine he had chosen the night to try out some new material, because he looked hesitant and unsure of himself from the very beginning. Whatever the reason, his set simply didn’t work, and he was obviously aware of this himself and began casting around for something that would bring the laughs, causing his performance to become jumpy and slightly incoherent. A big closing laugh, however, just about managed to rescue things for him.

Being fair to the two comics who followed, both were members of the Edinburgh University sketch comedy team Comedy and That, and as such I assume neither have any particular club experience. Mike Walsh, first up, was a young Irishman who was clearly heavily influenced by Dylan Moran, to the extent that he had appropriated many of his mannerisms, right down to the red wine glass that he splashed around in his hand throughout his performance. This is not necessarily a bad thing, most comedians start out aping the people who inspired them, and Walsh had some good moments, albeit using the old comedy standby of comparing Irish and British culture, and he showed enough promise that, once he begins to develop into a style of his own, I imagine he may do well.

Ben Kerth, who followed, was equally promising. Again, a lack of stage experience showed, but he started out strongly, and for the first half of his act, at least, brought the audience fully to life, something that had been lacking up until that point. His material listing different ways his rather hirsute appearance had been described was very good, (particularly “the fat girl from the Magic Numbers,) and although he began to fade towards the end of his set, he gave easily the best performance of the first half of the night.

Now I’m going to start my description of Mickey Anderson with a caveat. In preparing to write this review I watched a couple of clips of him in action on YouTube, and in both he was very good. But a comedian needs to know what is going to work for him, and in neither clip was he performing the bizarre choice of material he presented us with on Saturday night. Because for some unfathomable reason, perhaps it was supposed to be post-modern irony but if so I didn’t get it, after a good opening minute or two, he launched into a set of material about how old he was getting. And it wasn’t that the material was bad, it might very well have worked if the audience hadn’t had their eyes open and were thus fully aware that he appeared to have barely passed the age of puberty. He even commented himself at one point that he was possibly the youngest person in the room, which should probably have given him a clue that this material quite simply was never going to work. I’d be interested in seeing him again, performing a different set, because he did look promising, but I’d have to advise him to dump this particular set of material in the nearest wastebin as soon as humanly possible, and don’t revisit it for at least another twenty years.

As for Peter Aitchison, given the feel of the room at this point, an attempt at topical political comedy was probably not the best idea. Aitchison spent the majority of his set working his way through the news of the day making witty remarks about each story, but to be honest what was really needed at this point was tried and tested material. An attempt to liven things up by creating a lonely-hearts ad for himself using audience suggestions worked slightly better and gave him a decent ending to his set, and managed to give the first half of the night a reasonable round-off.

The second half kicked off with Gordon Brunton, and I can’t help wishing he had been introduced a lot earlier. I think the reason he was kept to this point was from the experience of the previous night and realising that there might be a need for someone with the ability to fill. But the fact is that from the moment he took to the stage he breathed energy into the whole night. Clearly a seasoned and experienced performer, he worked the audience superbly well and brought the room fully to life. Being a cohort of PBH from way back, he told stories of the early days of the Free Fringe which gave his set a topical feel, and despite performing the longest set of the evening, you felt he could have kept going all night if he had been asked to.

Graham Thomas closed the night, having rushed straight down from performing at The Stand, and, building on the good start, kept the momentum going with a motormouth performance. Like his predecessor he got in among the audience and managed to connect with a set that felt less like a well rehearsed monologue and more like an over-excitable mate whose mouth was running away with him.

So overall, fifteen acts, or sixteen including the man himself, performing over two night free of charge was nothing to be sneezed at, and the good moments certainly outweighed those less so. And with a free CD on the way out, how could you possibly complain. PBH has been organising nights like these for long enough now to know that there are always going to be ups and downs in any hastily thrown together show, and the main thing is that as long as everyone has fun then you can call it a success, and that was certainly the case here.

And so it only remains to say Happy Birthday Sir, I hope it’s a good one for you certainly deserve it. And here’s to many more years of bringing comedy to the people, and keeping it real.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

PBH at 60 (part one)

Peter Buckley Hill is a name that would be recognised by few outside of the world of stand-up, and by almost everyone within it. A little over a decade ago, PBH recognised that the Edinburgh Fringe Festival had lost its way. What had started out as a way for smaller companies without funds or state backing to become part of the Edinburgh experience, had now become as much a commercial venture as the main festival itself. Consequently the ticket prices were rising, the venue charges were rising, and the situation was becoming that only those who had already established themselves could afford to play.

So he had the idea of putting on a show for free. The first year he made a huge loss, but establishing the precedent, he was able from there to persuade more and more people to give him a performing space, mostly events rooms in pubs around the city, free of charge in return for increased bar sales. These venues he then lets for free to performers, on the condition that they in turn charge no ticket price, but take only what is given to them in an open collection at the end of the performance. And so, the Free Fringe was born, and the list of performers who have benefitted from it is endless.

On Monday March 3rd, PBH turns 60, and having another mad idea he decided to put on a series of six free shows, four in London, two in Edinburgh, featuring a total of 60 comedians with himself as MC, all giving their time for free in aid of the Free Fringe running costs. This was the first of the Edinburgh shows, and the fourth overall.

It’s a shame, then, that as so often happens in the comedy business, those who are a regular part of it forget that those outside have no idea what is going on. The fact that a free show in the centre of a major city on a Friday night could be so sparsely attended can only be down to the lack of publicity the event received in advance. But take nothing away from PBH, there may not have been a huge attendance, but those who did turn up got a great little show.

PBH himself makes a warm and welcoming host. With a slightly ramshackle approach to performing, he genuinely appears as if he is making it all up on the spot, and probably half the time he is. In fact his performance starts even before he takes the stage, as he wanders around the room talking to folk as if they are old friends, even if he’s never met them before.

Keara Murphy
started off the night. With a set based mostly around her middle-class Glasgow upbringing and her Irish mother who refuses to believe anything good can come from anywhere but Ireland, it was a good opening. Murphy is clearly experienced and looked comfortable on the stage, letting her set build by itself rather than trying to force laughs from the small audience.

Barry McDonald was next up, wandering on stage with a gag about his black stripy shirt making him look like a human bar-code. It was good to get an early laugh in, because for the opening of his set he looked hesitant and less relaxed, but he began to win the audience over about half way through. Clearly less experienced, he nonetheless had some good lines and by the time he finished he had made a good account of himself.

It was my second time of seeing Elaine Malcolmson, and she is an act I continue to be impressed by. Very quietly spoken, her comedy is low key, her act stylised and her lines clearly well rehearsed. But last night something happened about half way through. Distracted from her train of thought she launched into an obviously impromptu anecdote about a bomb scare in Katowice Airport which was superbly funny and showed a side to her personality I hadn’t seen on the last occasion, and only went to confirm my impression that she is one to watch for in the future.

Viv Gee, on the other hand, didn’t really look comfortable at all, and never seemed to get the mood of the audience. An almost interminable routine about subliminal suggestions never seemed to go anywhere and probably needed a bigger and drunker audience to really work. Despite a few good lines, she didn’t seem able to get into her stride at all, and to be fair it looked like she was well aware of the fact and couldn’t wait to get to the end.

The last act of the first half was then slightly odd. Ruby Summers is not a comedian, but a blues singer. Which would have been fine, if some warning had been given that this was what she was, but instead the audience was expecting more comedy and was thus left slightly confused as she sang a couple of numbers in a spangly red Jessica Rabbit dress which kept threatening to slip down and expose her voluminous bosom, against a pre-recorded backing tape on which the volume was turned up so high it frequently drowned out her voice. Being fair, she’s a decent enough singer, but the act just seemed slightly out of place on the night.

The second half began with Jeff O’Boyle, a personable Ulsterman who performed a self-deprecating act mostly based around relationships and internet dating. He has some good lines despite the rather well-worn subject matter, and being another relative newcomer, he might be one to keep an eye on if he can develop his material a bit more and step out of the comfort zone.

With one of the remaining four scheduled acts having already apparently dropped out, and two more not having shown up yet, Neil McFarlane was now placed in the position of having to fill wildly rather than performing the ten minute set that had been the standard up until this point. Having already been outed as coming from the posh part of Glasgow, the existence of which was hitherto unsuspected, he has a confident and unassuming laid-back approach which takes a little while to warm to. But while the early part of his set was a little bland, he got into his stride with material about working in the BBC complaints department, and managed to pull things around so that by the end of his set he had the audience well on his side.

With another act failing to turn up, Keir McAllister turned out to be the final performer of the night. Having now seen him perform three times in less than two months, it’s a little difficult to know what there is new to say about him. But the first few minutes consisted of material I hadn’t heard before, and he worked the room well, being the only performer of the night to get down off the platform stage and get in and amongst the audience.

So overall it was an entertaining night, and I’ll be heading back for the second round in a few scant hours after I finish writing this. I can only hope that a larger audience can be rounded up, because nice though it is to sometimes feel like one of the “in-the-know crowd,” nights like this deserve something more.