Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Mike Wozniak - Falling Down With Laughter @ Belushis, Southwark, 23/09/08

While I tire of people’s incredulity at a non-alcoholic choosing to quit booze, as is the case with myself, it’s hard to be too defensive against anyone who peddles remarks such as Dean Martin’s “I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day” as one effect of quitting drinking is that the bipolarity of the ‘night-out’ experience is levelled out. This has certainly been the case with watching comedy. I am certainly much more aware of what’s causing my laughter, and am less given to rolling-on-the-floor reactions.

Not that this makes me any more perceptive a critic, but I know now that when something moves me, it’s genuine, rather than lubricated. In sobriety I recall only twice crying with uncontrollable laughter; first was courtesy of Justin Edwards’ ‘Jeremy Lion’ character at the 2004 Fringe and, now, this London reprise of Mike Wozniak’s if.comeddie Best Newcomer-nominated Edinburgh show.

Let’s get the critique out of the way first though. Wozniak’s very deliberate delivery is both a strength and a weakness. The crafted wordsmithery of his tales are given a beautiful rhythm, but also fuses a bit too easily with the style of Richard Herring, something made all the more apparent by Herring’s Edinburgh show ‘The Headmaster’s Son’ following twenty minutes after this*.

However, while Herring increasingly is mining a intellectualised shock-value seam that tries to create a tension before subverting, Wozniak aims for the right level of squirm, taking grotesque, coprophilic and penoscrotal imagery but wrapping it up in such tight lyrical nuggets that they easily bypass offensiveness.

While the delivery may be reminiscent of both Herring and his erstwhile colleague Stewart Lee, the take on his subject matter is much more akin to Rhod Gilbert, particularly the Welshman’s latest “…Award Winning Mince Pie” show, where reality is bubbled, stretched and warped so as to have a surreality whilst retaining an anchor in the conceivable.

His Polish background and his moustache (the kind you could lose your dinner in) are weaved in and out of the tales but in the most part the stories concern his amateur scientist father and yarn-spinning grandparents. How much is actually true scarcely matters, as his characterisation embodies these figures with distinct warmth, despite the often gruesome nature of the stories. The call-back lines don’t always work as well as they might, but the dovetail at the end, bringing all his narrative threads together in the form of imparted advice, is a triumphant pay-off.

*As a side point, £6 for two full-length hour shows in central London is a real steal; Alexis Dubus and Sy Thomas, the comics behind ‘Falling Down With Laughter’, should be duly commended.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Tony Law, Stephen Dick, Eddie Hoo, Eilidh MacAskill, compere Sandy Nelson - The Stand, Edinburgh, 13/09/2008

Photo courtesy Diamond Geyser, reproduced under a Creative Commons license

September at the Stand tends to be a quiet month, as the city calms down after the excesses of the festival, but the club still fairly buzzes for a weekend show, and while the lineups may feature some less well known names, they still manage to draw the odd top headliner to pull in the punters.

Glaswegian Sandy Nelson is one of the regular MCs at the club, and always sets a good tone for the night. He has a quick mind and a way with a snappy retort, and he is served well on this night by the presence at the front of a large gaggle of Welsh thirtysomething women out on a birthday shindig (but amazingly not a hen party,) together with a group of squaddies standing near the back who he attempts to hook up with them.

Sadly, his initial efforts go to waste when opening act Eddie Hoo takes the stage. At this level one tends to expect that the opener will be a well established club act with experience, professionalism and finely crafted routines. Hoo demonstrated none of these things. He looked uncomfortable and nervous, stumbled over his words, and his jokes suffered from overly complicated and convoluted set-ups leading to punchlines which seldom rose above the level of "and then I fucked her." He was clearly attempting to be controversial, but doing so with such an utter lack of wit or charm that he barely raised a titter despite this being a crowd that was clearly "up for it." In the ten minute try-out spot, this may have been just about acceptable, but as an opener it was highly disappointing. Hoo does seem to have been on the circuit for some time, so one can only hope this was merely an off night.

Thankfully, this turned out to be a temporary abberation, as the try-out act, musical comedian Eilidh MacAskill, turned out to be an utter delight from beginning to end. Billing her act as Eilidh's Daily Ukelele Ceilidh (all of these words rhyme with Daily for the uninitiated,) she fired off silly jokes and daft songs which were short enough to hit their mark quickly without ever outstaying their welcome. With a bright and engaging personality, she held the crowd easily and I could happily have sat through a set twice as long.

Main support Stephen Dick is well established on the Scottish scene as a comedy magician who, thankfully, keeps the emphasis firmly on the comedy. The magic, it has to be said, was nothing out of the ordinary, the usual card tricks that we have seen a hundred times before, together with the old chestnut of taking money from an audience member and seemingly destroying it before restoring it unharmed. But there's very little else a magician could do in the close confines of the Stand's tiny stage, and what Dick does very well is to supplement the tricks with some great gags and some fine self-deprecating humour, as well as putting the odd new twist on the trick to keep it reasonably fresh.

And so we come to headliner Tony Law, a master of surreal and twisted humour who, after a slightly shaky start, quickly has the audience in the palm of his hand, so much so that despite massively overrunning his slot he continues to hold their rapt attention with not so much as a single fidget in a seat.

Law's act affects a constant bewilderment at the world around him, but it's not a world the rest of us would recognise, populated as it is with random anthropomorphisms conjured out of an imagination most of us would give everything we own just to spend one day in. The bulk of the set is taken up with an instructive guide to setting up a fight between a black bear and a shark, but his attention is easily drawn such that this line of thought is regularly abandoned as he trails off onto yet another lengthy digression.

This is a kind of comedy that you have to be in the mood for, but on this night the audience certainly were, and rounded off the night well. A night of ups and downs, to be sure, but with the ups firmly in the majority.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Juliet Meyers, Holly Walsh, Liz Bentley, Rosie Wilby, compere Maureen Younger - The Bath House, Soho, 04/09/2008

When it comes to stand-up comedy, you know you’re in trouble when you turn up to the venue to discover the show’s being held up on your account. Cursing the queue at Viet that delayed our arrival, we take the full brunt of regular Laughing Cows compere Maureen Younger’s playfully aggressive questioning, but there’s plenty of other grist to her mill sat around us, not least a professional film extra called Brian with a most extraordinary quiff who tries to give as good as he gets.

First up is Rosie Wilby, who started out as a musician and fell into comedy when she realised her between-song banter was getting a better response than the songs themselves. There are some clever moments in her set – not least the bit about her fear of being out collecting one parcel when Royal Mail try to deliver another, thus ending up in a weird kind of postal groundhog day – and her self-deprecating humour is largely well received, but it’s a shame the sometime MC for Glastonbury’s Leftfield Stage hurries some of her darker thoughts as if reluctant to let them sink into and fester in the minds of the audience.

Liz Bentley also ended up in comedy via a circuitous route, having tried her hand at novel-writing and then discovering that her short stories elicited more than just a few laughs when read aloud at open mic nights. In fact, the confident sit-down stand-up opens up by denying she’s a comedian at all, describing herself as a poet instead – albeit a poet who performed in a swimming pool at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. A keyboard-led ditty about a tenants’ association meeting is probably the highlight, though later Younger’s right in noting that we probably hadn’t come out expecting to join in a sprightly singalong about breastfeeding.

The pick of tonight’s bunch, though, is Holly Walsh, by some way (I’d guess) the youngest. Dressed in a blue anorak and looking, in her own words, like “a gardener”, she has a nicely unstudied style (or at least a style so studied it’s been made to look unstudied). Not only does she cope swiftly, easily and wittily with being picked up on geographical distinctions in East London – “It’s like being heckled by a sat nav” – she also comes out with the evening’s most memorable and repeatable punchline: “That’s midwifery!” (I leave you to speculate as to the joke it belonged to). Little wonder, then, that she was named 2008’s Best Newcomer by Chortle, and we’re left wanting more than her allotted fifteen minutes.

Like Liz Bentley, Juliet Meyers is fresh from Edinburgh, where one night she performed her show ‘Strange Ears’ to just three people, one of whom happened to be a Chortle reviewer. Thankfully there are too many of us tonight for her to feel she needs to know everyone’s name, though she does hark back to her Edinburgh experience by recalling what happened when she told the (very Scottish) mother of a young boy who’d come to her show that it contained use of the ‘C’ word – the woman looked down at her son and said, “David, you know ‘cunt’, don’t you?” Whereas Rosie Wilby races through anything remotely controversial, Meyers pauses to make a tumbleweed noise after her edgier jokes as though to draw more attention to them (unnecessarily). Her best routine is based around that idea that one little untruth can snowball out of control, beginning with her confession that she often refers to herself as “Mrs” so as to avoid the potential social embarrassment of “Ms” and ending with her realisation that she’s invented a husband who’s a bearded accountant called Tim.

The first Thursday of the month, then: the night for lady-shaped laughs...

Thursday, 4 September 2008

A joke Patrick Kielty could steal - and did

In his show ‘90s Comedian’ Stewart Lee, affronted by the fact that Joe Pasquale had nicked one of his jokes, responded to those who attacked him for ‘Jerry Springer: The Musical’ with a long-winded and deliberately obscene anecdote-joke that Pasquale certainly couldn’t steal.

So it was odd to watch last night’s installment of ‘Live At The Apollo’ on Dave* and witness another comic no-mark Patrick Kielty parroting Lee’s joke about feeling nostalgic for the good old days of the IRA, “gentlemen terrorists” who always had the courtesy to ring up the authorities to give advance warning of bomb attacks…

* Yes, I’m aware I’ve just outed myself as too much of an armchair fan these days. That said, I am going to see some stand-up in the flesh tonight, for the first time in ages…