Sunday, 27 April 2008

Dave Fulton, Dan Evans, Niall Browne, Jay Lafferty, compere Joe Heenan - The Stand, Edinburgh, 17/04/2008

After a weekend show where I had seen almost every act in the recent past, it was refreshing to move on to one where, apart from compere Joe Heenan, I had only seen one of the performers previously, and that one nearly four years ago. Heenan as usual won the audience over quickly with his face-splitting grin, laddish charm and bizarre Arnold Schwarznegger impersonations. He has mastered the art of taking whatever the audience throws at him and adapting his material to make it seem completely off the cuff and applicable. And on this evening he was quick to realise that what every comedy show needs is an enormous shaven-headed publican who looks like he’s about to kill you sitting right in the middle of the front row.

Niall Browne is a Northern Irish comedian now resident in Scotland, and is in many ways a bit of an old fashioned gag-smith. Homely and cheery, he is one of those performers whose act sort of breezes over you in a great big waft of good will. His material is good, and ideas like randomly choosing Olympic competitors in the manner of juries were very funny, but the only time he moves towards any kind of edginess is when he talks about what it was like growing up in his homeland. He takes to the stage on this occasion with his arm in a sling, a fact he refers only briefly and that I thought he could have made a lot more of. Overall his was an entertaining performance, but not a terribly memorable one.

Jay Lafferty is one of the up-and-coming young stars of the Scottish scene at the moment, and it doesn’t hurt that she is also a bit of a babe. This isn’t the only thing about her that draws the male attention, however, as she opens her act with a routine which provides a perfect explanation of the offside rule using shopping as a metaphor. Bright and bubbly, she combines a girly style of delivery with a sometimes unexpectedly twisted mind, and on the evidence of this set it won’t be long before she is moving up from the ten minute try-out spot to become a regular support.

Dan Evans is a name I had heard bandied about a lot, he’s a comedian’s comedian, widely known and appreciated by others in the business. I have to say my first impression of him was as Harry Hill without the collar, and for much of the act his mannerisms, and indeed the bald head, did little to dispel that image. But that is not meant in any way as a criticism, because Evans brand of surreal stream of consciousness humour is sharp and original, his jokes never obvious, and his delivery is assured and confident.

Dave Fulton is an American comic who has been resident in the UK for some years, and as with many of his countrymen living over here, his act revolves in a large part around a critique of his home country. With long straggly hair and a laid-back demeanour he comes over as something of a stoner dude, and indeed probably is, but this is belied by his sometimes savage cutting to the point.

That said, as a political comedian, which he would clearly like to be, he is sometimes slightly lacking, and for instance attacks on President Bush would seem slightly lazy and not a bit pointless at this moment in time. It’s not as if there’s anyone in the audience thinking “I thought he was doing a good job.” He’s on safer ground when he sticks to the personal, such as his examination of the difference in attitudes to drinking between his homeland and his adopted country.

But Fulton is an old hand and has plenty of experience and plenty of material to keep an audience entertained for a forty minute set. And if he isn’t necessarily as “cutting edge” as some of his contemporaries, not everybody has to be.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Absolute Beginners - The Mercat Bar, Edinburgh, 14/04/2008

The world of stand-up comedy is split roughly into four levels. At the top end are the star names, the likes of Billy Connolly, Eddie Izzard, Jack Dee, who can tour the biggest theatres and sell out every night. On the next rung down are the club headliners, people who are not household names, but make a good living out of comedy nonetheless. Below them are the ordinary club comics, who seldom appear on the telly, who fill up the early evening bill in a club, who earn a bit but probably still have to hold down a day job.

And then there are open spots. The bottom rung. The people just starting out, who have yet to prove themselves, who are still learning what’s funny and what isn’t, and how to handle an audience. They rely on the charity of club owners to give them five minutes of stage time, and will often travel for several hours at their own expense just to get it.

But they are the bedrock of the comedy world. The big pool of swirling potential talent that every act further up the ladder had to once be a part of. Many will never find their way up to the next step. Hardly any will ever make it to the top one. But without them, the comedy world would eventually wither and die.

There’s a vicious circle in play. Most promoters would never let an act appear at their club without a bit of stage time under their belt. But unless they can find a spot to play in, the comic is never going to get that necessary experience. That’s where a club like Absolute Beginners comes in.

Started about six months ago by Glaswegian-Irish comic Keara Murphy, the original idea for the night was as a spill-over from The Stand’s new act night Red Raw. With so many aspiring comics vying for so few places, the waiting list for a spot at The Stand was often five or six months long. Keara’s idea was to give those waiting a place where they could practice their act in front of a non-threatening audience, so that when their Red Raw chance came along, they would be ready for it.

And so, every Monday night, folk can file into the basement of the Mercat Bar to watch Keara host eight acts of varying quality, plus a headliner generally from that second rung level, all for the princely sum of £2.

It wouldn’t be fair to these acts to critique their performance. The whole point of the night is as a learning experience, so those who die on their arse get to pick themselves up, brush themselves down and move on, having learned from the experience.

On this particular night the quality ranges from the excellent to the obvious total newcomer. At the top there was Daniel Webster, an act clearly ready now to take the step up to the next level, who had come along to try out a set of all new material. And very good material it was too. A couple of others impress along the way, a few show promise, two or three noticeably need to work on their delivery, at least one loses it altogether.

None of this matters, because that’s the whole point of the evening. Keara, meanwhile, keeps things moving and keeps things light, skilfully glossing over things that have obviously gone wrong, making sure everyone gets an encouraging word in public and a few handy hints on how to improve in private.

To close the show we get Quentin Reynolds, probably best known to readers of the Scottish Metro letters page as “Q from Airdrie,” but also an accomplished stand-up and comedy writer with many years experience under his belt. He takes us through a whistle-stop tour of life in the Scottish heartlands, an unusual world where muggers haggle and neds discuss open heart surgery on the bus.

It’s a suitably good ending to an evening which has pulled in a good sized crowd of probably forty or fifty, and suggests that the Scottish comedy scene is in good hands.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Scott Capurro, Teddy, Juliet Meyers, Jim Park, compere Vladimir McTavish - The Stand, Edinburgh, 10/04/2008

They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but this was a night that proved that old adage wrong. On the bill there was only one comedian that I had not seen before, and of the others, none I had last seen more than six months ago, two of them twice within that time. In all honesty, I might have given the show a miss if I hadn’t had been taking a visitor along. But in the end I’m glad not to have.

Vladimir McTavish, it has to be said, is a funny man, but is no MC. His curmudgeonly style is not exactly the best way to get an audience warmed up, and his interaction with that audience leaves a bit to be desired. Beyond a cursory introduction, he makes no great attempt to get to know any of their stories, instead content for the most part to cherry-pick from his large store of material and get the laughs going that way. He did a competent job, but I would prefer to see him as an act rather than performing this role in the future.

First on for the night was Juliet Meyers, the one new name for me. A middle-aged, Jewish and a bit of an aging hippie, she was a bundle of enthusiasm and energy from the word go. Again, as an opening act I would say she did what was required, but she isn’t someone I would particularly seek out again. It was something of a workmanlike performance. Very much a gag-teller, she was funny, but her material was mostly quite obvious and the punchlines were often slightly telegraphed.

Jim Park I have reviewed here twice before, and on both occasions I have been less than enthusiastic. So I’m actually quite pleased this time to be able to say that he is growing on me. With new material in the set, he had re-jigged the best of his older lines into a snappy opening few minutes that had a great rhythm and delivered the laughs well, and the new jokes, when they arrived, were equally strong. Meanwhile the air of vague bewilderment with which he performs disarms the audience and makes him easy to warm to.

Teddy, who followed, I had been equally dismissive of in my last review, and again I can only report a change of opinion. Even though he performed, for the most part, the same material, centred on a lengthy shaggy-dog story about a sexual encounter with the woman of his dreams which turned into a bit of a nightmare, he has clearly been busy trimming and honing the performance in the meantime. As a result, some of the more gratuitous crudeness had been stripped away, and the more bizarre and surreal moments had been highlighted making for a set that was not merely improved, but actually sounded fresher on this occasion than on first hearing it.

And talking of gratuitous crudeness, Scott Capurro is the master of that particular art-form. Seeming to get taller and skinnier every time I see him, the camp San Franciscan could read the phone book and make it sound pornographic. There’s a famous quote by George Carlin that the job of a comedian is to find out where the line is and then cross it, and this is something Capurro seems to have taken very much to heart. He is not a comedian for the faint hearted, as he gleefully pushes and pushes his audience to see how far he can bend them before they will break.

Nothing is off-limits in one of Capurro’s shows, as he runs the gamut of racial and sexual stereotypes, but always if you listen close enough it becomes clear that the butt of the joke is actually ourselves and our own highly-strung middle-class attitudes to these subjects. The basis of his humour is always that people want to tell you what it is and is not acceptable to joke about, without first stopping to consider what it is that they find offensive about it. That most people just hear the key-word and say “you can’t say that,” without listening to the context in which the word is being said. Capurro makes you listen and he makes you think, and he makes you laugh at the same time, and that’s really what all good comedy should be about.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

King Gong - The Comedy Store, London

One of the best things about moving out of the middle of nowhere and closer to "The City" is the improved ease of going to an event just because you fell like it, without needing to plan things in advance or worry about getting home again afterwards. Therefore, when I was wandering around Leicester square the other evening and happened to walk past the comedy store, I decided to pop in and see what things were like. The evening's event was a "Beat the Gong" event, something that I had never been to before, and wasn't sure what to expect from it.

For others who have never experienced a Gong show before, it's a fairly simple concept. The wannabe comedians have to survive on stage for 5 minutes without being gonged off. They can be gonged off by the MC for time wasting, or a number of other petty misdemeanours, but the main power to gong someone off lies in the hands of the audience. Three random people were selected from the crowd and issued with red cards, if all three red cards go up in the air, the wannabe is gonged.

Surviving the full time on stage is a difficult thing to do: five minutes is a long time in comedy and the audience is a fickle mistress. On this particular night only five of the 20+ to take the stage managed to avoid the gong, and that was despite a couple of comedians who, at the request of the audience, were given second (and in one case third) chances. Of those that made it through, the audience then selected it's ultimate favourite who will go on to other things.

A good MC for the night is crucial to keep everything working and keep the audience laughing. This particular night, the MC was Ben Norris and he did a fantastic job. When I spoke to a few people in the crowd, people seemed to be of the opinion that they would quite happily have paid the £5 entrance just for his bits...all the other would be comedians were a bonus.

As a note to anyone who likes the idea of taking part in a gong event: it's a great place to try and find out if you have the makings of a comedian, and build up some stage confidence. But, don't insult the audience, don't make references to the inner workings of the body (male or female) and don't be too vulgar (crude and rude is fine, but careful with the vulgarity). But the most important thing: there are three judges in the audience at any time, don't be put off because one doesn't like you. too many of the acts had one red card against them, reacted defensively to this and floundered a bit...and that caused the other two cards to go up. Ignore the cards, focus on general audience opinion instead.

All in all, a gong show is a good night out, but don't expect the kind of quality of humour you'd get from a more traditional show.

Steve Hughes, Chris Lynam, Mark Nelson, Isma Almas, compere Bruce Devlin - The Stand, Edinburgh, 04/04/2008

Some nights... just turn out to be a little bit bizarre. I probably should have realised that this was going to be one of them when we spotted the chap sitting in the front row wearing cricket pads and gloves and drinking Magners cider from the bottle through a straw that was actually a bat grip filled with ice. As can be imagined, it didn’t take MC Bruce Devlin more than, oh, about two thousandths of a second to spot and home in on him like a sniper with a laser sight.

As it turns out this is only one of three stag and hen parties in the room on this particular night, which gives Devlin plenty of material to exercise his trademark bitchy camp humour on. As circumstances had forced us into the front row, I was glad of this as it meant that I escaped, at this juncture at least, relatively lightly.

But anyway, the evening started off okay, indeed rather well. Opening act Mark Nelson won Scottish Comedian of the Year two years ago, and he showed why with an excellent performance which combined a very dry wit and some caustic one-liners with a great deal of warmer self-deprecating humour. A regular fixture on the Scottish stand-up circuit, on this performance I can’t imagine it will be long before he enjoys success on a more national scale. A good opener, and a mental image of Heather Mills that will stay with me a long time.

Things started to turn weird, however, when Isma Almas took to the stage clad head to foot in traditional Islamic jilbab and burkha, and proceeded to have a lot of fun with the sheer ridiculous nature of trying to do comedy with nothing showing, at one point setting off a set of Christmas fairy lights so that her costume flashed a variety of colours. She had some good moments, both before and after she removed the strange attire, but overall I felt she telegraphed her jokes a little too much, and maybe needs a bit more stage time to become the finished article.

And then there was Chris Lynam. What to say about this act? Clearly influenced by the likes of Freddie Starr and Max Wall, with maybe a little of Rick and Ade thrown in, Lynam’s act does not contain, to the best of my recollection, a single line of dialogue that could be described as a joke. Rather he simply acts bizarrely for twenty minutes before exiting the stage. Entering it with a babble of nonsense, during his routine he throws ice cubes at people’s heads, dresses in a sparkly evening dress and smears melted chocolate over himself, and at one point, steals my shoe, throws it around the room and then attempts to auction it to the audience. Overall it is comedy of discomfort, and the laughter that eventually arrives is more to do with a general build up of absurdness than through any part of the performance that is individually funny.

So finally on to Steve Hughes, and it is only a few months since I last reviewed his headline act, but in the meantime he seems to have been busy adding new material to his act, as around half the set was new to me despite having seen him several times before. As usual with Hughes, it’s mostly a mixture of politics, satire and paranoia, lengthy ramblings on how every aspect of our lives are controlled by the commercial interests of the super-rich military-industrial complex cabals, but with a few knob gags thrown in just to lighten the load.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Ed Byrne/Maxwell's Fullmooners - The Church on the Hill, Glasgow, 21/03/2008

Reviewing these two shows as a single entity seems like a logical decision. They were advertised together as part of the Glasgow International Comedy Festival, with a discount for buying tickets for both, they were in the same venue, one after the other, and Ed Byrne was involved in both.

As a venue, the Church on the Hill had its advantages and its disadvantages. A big old converted chapel, with a high roof, stone walls, booming echoey acoustics and a generally gloomy atmosphere, it was, in a way, the perfect location for a Fullmooners show, although less so for Byrne’s solo appearance. However, it was also bitterly cold inside, was a lengthy trek away from the city centre, had awkward door arrangements and officious staff, and being in a residential area, was subject to strict regulations about how long it could stay open. All of these things made it overall probably a quite poor choice by the promoters to mount the shows there.

The result was that, arriving half an hour before showtime for the first of the two performances, we were left standing outside on a cold night until ten minutes before the scheduled start, whereupon it took around 45 minutes to get the full queue of audience inside resulting in the show itself beginning around 40 minutes late. Which would not have been a problem, had the same procedure exactly not been followed for the second show, even though there was a gap of well over an hour between the two, plenty of time for one audience to be moved out and the next moved in. Instead, those who had booked tickets for both were left standing around, refused permission even to queue up to re-enter, were subject to another late show, and were then effectively denied their money’s worth when the show was forced to end earlier than it should have by fact that the venue had no license to stay open.

All in all, it could hardly have been more of a shambles. So thank heavens the comedy was good, because with the paying public having been treated so badly, it would have been very easy for the whole night to fall as flat as a pancake.

Ed Byrne, of course, was always going to be a huge draw for the crowds. An instantly recognisable face from his many television appearances, there was not a single spot in the venue left unoccupied with even the standing areas packed to bursting point. Byrne has made something of a trademark of pedantic humour, with most people first becoming aware of him through his classic dissection of Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic.” These day’s he seems to be more into movies, with his last tour focussing on the Michael Douglas film “Falling Down,” and this show taking a long hard look at the super-intelligent shark flick “Deep Blue Sea.”

Aside from that, with his quick-fire delivery he tackles a whole host of subjects over the course of the hour, the most in-depth being his forthcoming wedding, and the planning thereof, and more to the point the expense of the planning thereof. He also has a chance to delve into a spot of nostalgia, having attended University in Glasgow, giving him another opportunity to let his pedantic nature run amok on the slogans and banners which used to adorn his Student’s Union.

With Byrne you are always in a safe pair of hands, and the audience lapped it up. My only real criticism would be that the one hour running time seemed rather short given that, unlike the Edinburgh Fringe, there should have been no real time restriction on the show. However, given what would happen later, perhaps that was all for the best.

Maxwell’s Fullmooners has become something of a cult phenomenon since its first appearance on the comedy scene in 2005. Hosted by Byrne’s good friend and fellow regular on Irish TV’s “The Panel,” Andrew Maxwell, it is a late night with comedy, music and breakdancing, and audience participation in the form of howling at the moon, usually best enjoyed whilst in a state of mild inebriation. Part of the charm of the show is the apparent chaotic nature of proceedings, however it can rarely, if ever, have ended in quite so shambolic a manner as on this particular occasion.

Taking to the stage, after inadvertently locking himself into the backstage area, in his customary Dracula cloak, Maxwell himself spends the opening of the show whipping up the audience into a frenzy with his usual hyperactive Irish charm while bantering away with co-organiser Sir Tim Fitzhigham. Having seen rather a lot of the man in the past year or so, much of his performance was familiar, but for anyone who has been following him they might like to know that an ending to the “playing a show for the provisional IRA” saga has moved on a chapter and may be coming to a BBC screen near you sooner rather than later.

The first guest act on the night was Stu Who? Something of an legend on the Scottish comedy scene, and now a regular on the Jongleurs circuit, Stu could best be described as the angry old man of comedy. With jet black dyed quiff and dark glasses, he prowls the stage, laying into the younger audience members as he reels off a monologue on the advantages of growing old disgracefully. Approaching sixty, he has energy that would put much younger comics to shame, and the ability to build an almost instant rapport with his audience, and sets the night up nicely.

After the customary song from ethereal ukulele player Lady Carol of the Moon, on this occasion essaying us with Radiohead’s Creep, and a turn from the energetic Zoo Nation Breakdancing Crew, the second comic on the bill is a slightly strange choice. Billed only as “Not Billy Connolly,” he took to the stage in an obviously fake wig and proceeded to perform with all his namesake’s tics and mannerisms, he performed a set based mostly around the experience of touring Northern Ireland as part of a band during the troubles. The problem was, it was performed in such a way as to assume audience familiarity with the situation, and I simply found the whole thing slightly confusing, and not a little offputting.

Now here’s where things started to unravel, because by now it was five to one in the morning, and at this point it transpired that the venue was only allowed to continue operating until one, and the police were outside insisting the show come to an end. And so matters became highly chaotic, with Sir Tim and promoter Alan Anderson rushing in and out, trying to convince them to allow things to continue, while hasty messages were relayed to the stage, and Byrne, who had been advertised as the star attraction, being rushed on to perform as hastily as possible so as not to let the punters down.

Byrne managed to perform for ten minutes or so, but matters were clearly coming to a head, with threats of arrests being made, Maxwell trying to storm through it as if nothing was happening, Sir Tim trying to keep control of matters and Anderson looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights, eventually a compromise was reached that Lady Carol could perform one last song while everyone was leaving, but of course nobody moved and instead the night ended in a mass singalong of “Ring of Fire” performed with something of a blitz spirit while the police threatened to turn off the power.

So a strange night, all in all, and not one that went exactly the way it could have been expected. But not one that anyone present is likely to forget in a hurry. And having spoken to Stu Who? about it since, he made the point that in a way, there could be no more perfect ending to a Fullmooners show, than in chaos with everybody linking arms and singing Johnny Cash while the bizzies tried to arrest us for smiling without a license.