Friday, 9 May 2008

Carey Marx, Bishop & Douch, compere Nick Page - The Cellar, Oxford, 28/04/08

How to get people out to comedy gigs on a Monday night? That was the dilemma faced by Paddy Luscombe, the man behind The Free Beer Show. Can you guess how he manages it?

If the students who comprise the vast majority of the audience are aware who compere Nick Page is, then they do a good job of hiding it. Perhaps in these times of tuition fees and rising academic expectations, they're just too conscientious to spend their days sprawled in front of daytime TV, in which case they might not recognise the former presenter of shitey BBC property series 'Escape To The Country'. But somehow I doubt it.

Having begun by getting an uncomfortable laugh with a topical quip about us being squashed together into a confined underground space, Page does briefly savage the programme on which he prostituted himself, but gets more mileage out of his home county, Gloucestershire, being famous for only two things: the bizarre practice of cheese rolling and Fred West. Apparently there's so little to proud of if you're from Gloucester that if you badmouth West someone will come up to you and say "Yeah, but he was a fucking good builder..."

The fact that when Page reappears, some twenty-five minutes later (though it feels like twenty-five hours), he has a bemused smile plastered across his face should tell you something about support act Bishop & Douch (and friends). That that bemused smile raises a far bigger laugh than they could manage certainly should. That his first words are "Anyone need a drink?"...

Tonight's set consists of an amorphous and incoherent sketch that shifts in content and location. It begins with the hapless duo being chastised for a dereliction of duties by their boss at Disneyland, then becomes a tiresomely repetitive deconstruction of the familiar unmasking of Old Man Winters from 'Scooby Doo' with the backing cast stepping out of role to hijack the script, and ends up in a grim place called Sesame Lane.

Whether or not these three phases are deliberate nods to the first series of 'The Mighty Boosh', Charlie Kaufman's 'Adaptation' and David Chapelle's take on 'Sesame Street' respectively hardly matters - it all hangs together by the most tenuous of threads, and elicits far more awkward silence and bewilderment than it does laughs. Page has confessed that the thing he's inherited from his father (other than an excess of body hair) is the inability to avoid saying or doing something if he'll thereby amuse himself, even if only for a moment. I get the feeling I'm not alone in thinking it's unfortunate that Bishop & Douch seem to suffer from the same affliction.

Page welcomes us back after the interval by recounting his fondness for finding lists of names on noticeboards, very deliberately highlighting just one with a fluorescent marker pen and then making his escape, chuckling at the panic his mischief may have unleashed. But any whimsy is soon swept aside as he tells us, in the accelerated style of delivery he uses at times, of the night (which I suspect may be fictional) when he accidentally dosed himself with Rohypnol.

Tonight's billed headliner Rob Deering, who's had to pull out due to family illness, has been described on Chortle as an "easy-going act" whose "audience rapport is in the Eric Morecambe league, with a natural, non-threatening geniality that only the hardest of hearts wouldn't warm to". The same could hardly be said of his last-minute replacement, who apparently once made Princess Beatrice cry for more than an hour - quite probably not with laughter, one suspects.

For the most part, Carey Marx deals in the comedy of cruelty - or what he repeatedly refers to as "harsh jokes". Most are about midgets and women, and most are pretty unfunny and forgettable. All are delivered with a self-satisfied smirk. If there's anything worse than gratuitous offensiveness purely for the sake of it, then it's gratuitous offensiveness purely for the sake of it that tries to dress itself up as something more noble and purposive. Rather than pressing on regardless of the offence his material might cause, Marx irritatingly feels the need to try to justify and defend himself - but just doesn't have the arguments to do so.

It's a shame as much as an annoyance, though, because there's undoubted potential in some of the material, which has been culled from his diary and which is likely to form the basis for an Edinburgh show called 'Careyness' (and hence why I feel a bit like Herod, sticking the knife into the show in its infancy). We follow him out of his front door, through London, up to Scotland, in and out of hotel rooms, and back again - all the time on the look-out for subjects and incidents to riff on. It's a revealing window into the world of the professional stand-up, and the creation of a set, though much of it will probably rightly end up being filtered out when he sits down and seriously pans for the gold.

When he does dwell on something for long enough to probe a little deeper - such as Australian MP Ann Bressington's call for the introduction of "sex contracts" - it's clear that there's a perceptive wit lurking beneath the laddish exterior. Arguably the best element of the set is the mystery of the various bald men spotted around London folding and tearing up newspapers. But Marx's delivery of the punchline, which would make a neat conclusion to the set, is flat and hurried - and indeed would have been forgotten altogether if not for a prompt from a curious audience member.

Perhaps, to adopt a culinary analogy, you shouldn't sample and criticise what the chef's rustling up when it's still undercooked and far from ready - but even still the evening left rather a sour taste in the mouth.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

John Bishop - The Stand, Edinburgh, 22/04/2008

The comedy world tends to divide itself into two camps, the modern observational or “alternative” comic, and the old fashioned gag-teller or “mainstream” clown as they are usually described. John Bishop is something of an anomaly, because he seems have fallen with a foot in both camps.

From the moment he walks on stage, wearing an expensive suit and with his hair coiffed within an inch of its life, it is clear that Bishop is closer, fashion-wise, to his seventies counterparts than to most of today’s tee-shirt and jeans brigade. And after an opening in which he explains how unhappy he is to be playing the gig while Liverpool’s European semi-final first leg is live on the telly, and informs his audience that for the first time ever he wants them all to keep their phones on and let him know the score if anyone hears anything, he then spends the rest of the gig perched on a stool, again reminiscent of an earlier style of comedy.

And then there is the first half of the show. Bishop informs us that for the second half he will be performing last year’s Fringe show “Stick Your Job Up Your Arse,” but that for the first half he will simply be talking, acting essentially as his own warm-up act. And having said that, he proceeds to regale us with a series of his most showbiz tales possible. There’s the one about playing golf with Alan Shearer, and the one about going to a private gentlemen’s club in Hong Kong with England rugby star Mark Regan, and then there are others about the various famous names he has met and performed for, and it is all a bit “Tarby and Brucie” if truth be told.

His excuse for telling these stories is his amazement at how suddenly, after turning professional as a comic, he found himself moving in these sorts of circles. But you know somewhere deep down a big part of it is the desire to namedrop wildly. But for all that, he is an excellent raconteur, and so while the subject matter of his material might be something of a throwback to another age, he nonetheless has the ability to take the audience with him and keep the laughter coming at a regular pace.

The second half of the show is more thoughtful and paced. Here he tells the story of how, disillusioned with his life, his job and his marriage, he went through something of a personal crisis and found his way out of it when he discovered comedy. It is a story of giving up the things that made him successful in life, in order to pursue the things that gave him self-respect. And of how trying to be all things to all people nearly lost him everything, but being true to himself won them back again.

It is an engaging tale, if at times slightly self-indulgent, and Bishop has a keen eye to spot the humour in every situation. But it lacked the immediacy of the more unfocussed first part of the show. So that overall I came away with the feeling that Bishop is a good comedian, but he will probably never be a great one. He comes across as likeable, charming and decent, but somehow just a little too glib. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that he won’t be needing to return to his day job any time soon.