What is so great about theatre is that every experience can be so different. Obviously a big part of that is simply in seeing a new play, but it is also much more. It can be the experience of discovering a new venue; or the way a theatre already known has been adapted for a new play; or because of a totally different type of audience. Or, like my visit to see Woman In Black, it can be because of who you go with. But more of that later…
Considering how long The Woman In Black has been playing on the West End and that it had spawned two films, it had never really crossed my mind to see it. Not until the evenings company, Jenna, had suggested it as she had just recently watched the second of those films. For a play that has been running for so long, I was as innocent to the story as Jenna was to the theatre, my only knowledge coming from a vague remembrance of the film trailer a few years back; a big house, a solicitor, a ghost, a bit scary.
Thankfully there is so much more to the play than that, as I was to find out from Jenna. The play and the film are poles apart in how they tell the story, and both in themselves far from the original book the play was based on.
The play begins with our solicitor, Arthur Kipps, now an elderly man, dryly reading out his story, so carefully written down due to his desire to finally tell his family the horrors of his youth. It’s mumbled and hard to hear, and when he is interrupted from the back of the theatre, for a moment you actually worry someone in the audience is already annoyed at the lack of clarity. Thankfully not though, and you soon discover that he has sought out the assistance of an actor to better tell his story.
It’s a clever way to tell the story, allowing for the whole performance to be done by just the two actors; elderly Kipps and young actor. Even as they interchange roles, not for one moment is there any worry about why Kipps has suddenly become someone else and the actor has suddenly become the young Kipps.
It’s also a device that allows for massive liberties with the simple staging. When Kipps asks how they can possibly demonstrate being on a carriage, the young actor pulls a large chest out and sits on it, bouncing up and down, “like this, this is our carriage.” Even more of a liberty, the need for a dog is foregone as they simply pretend it is there, the actors eyes following the dog across the stage, leaning down to stroke it. It’s done so well you do feel as if there is a dog present.
As the story unfolds, it is the classic ghost story; unfortunate death leading to a sorrowful ghost seeking revenge. But even with its simplicity, both in story and staging, the way it is portrayed is enjoyable, and the way the tension is pushed up makes the moments of horror more effective. It’s also interesting to see that some tricks are ageless; the use of a torch to allow something to be momentarily glimpsed is used here in almost the same way as in Ghost Stories, a much more recent show.
But all this is not why seeing this was so enjoyable. It was, as I have said, the company kept. At the interval we spoke about the play, and Jenna was eager to explain how it differs from the film; “in the film…” she begins, explaining parts of the plot that were not in the play, at least not in the first act. Possible spoilers for what was to come, as I tried to tell her, “yeah, and in the film…” she continued to tell me what happened, clearly not having noticed the subtle hint of me pointing out I didn’t know what was going to happen as I hadn’t seen the film. Maybe I should have kept to my original suggestion of bringing a gag along for the evening for her?
Annoying? Not at all. Funny and entertaining and adding to the pleasure of the evening? Oh yes indeed.
And as the second act played out in front of us, I realised why every theatre experience can be so different. Because there is no greater theatre experience than seeing someone so clearly taken in by the drama unfolding in front of them. A glance to my side gave me the view of Jenna perched right on the edge of her seat, head resting on hands, leaning forward. For someone who already knew the story, she was still so taken in, completely immersed in the live performance. As was I, her possible spoilers at the interval not in fact being such.
This is why theatre is so good, why I go again and again, because every time it’s a different experience, because something new can happen to make it so memorable. The play in front of you doesn’t have to be the greatest thing ever to be put on stage, it just needs to be something that gives a new experience in one way or another.
Tonight that new experience was the company, her enthusiasm, her ability to almost tell me the story without realising it, and the sight of her totally engaged with the two actors on the almost bare stage riding a wooden chest and stroking an invisible dog.
As The Royale drew to its close tonight I sat in wonder as our central character, the black boxer Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson, entered the ring against the world champion, except that the person facing him was his sister, who in herself represented the black population of America in 1905 when the play is set. As the fight was played out in superb chorography, the pair entered conversation about what the fight meant, not just to Jackson himself, but more importantly, the whole of the black population of America.
It was a scene that left me in wonder as to how someone could come up with such an idea; I can get my head around a character to represent more than one person (the black population) and an idea or thought (racial tensions), after all this is what the chorus line in every Greek tragedy is about, but to then take that concept and play it out in the guise of a boxing match is just utter genius, tinged with a stroke of madness and explains why this play has had such great reviews and is now sold out for the remainder of its run.
It’s very loosely based on the life of a real boxer, Jack Johnson rather than Jay Johnson. Jack Johnson did fight for the world heavyweight crown in 1905, a fight that did cause massive controversy at the time because he was black. Major liberties are taken with his story, but that is because the play isn’t really about him, but about the racial tensions of the times.
While the play closes with the boxing match ending, it also closes with the knowledge that more fighting is beginning in the form of the riots and tensions that occurred for real when Johnson won the fight, outrage that a black man could be the heavyweight champion and beat the white man, and that the black population celebrated. It’s a powerful end, more so because of the imagery of the sister as the opponent rather than the actual boxer.
The staging is as simple as it can get. The centre stage, surrounded on all four sides by banks of seating, is just a wooden square that shakes as the actors move around, and the only items used are two wooden stalls. And yet it doesn’t matter, it is a boxing ring from the moment the actors set foot on it and start the opening scenes, and it is the changing rooms of the boxing hall when they are talking pre-fight, it doesn’t need lots of props, just the right words and a little imagination, something that this play has plenty of.
The fights are played out in an imaginative way as well, at times the opponents aren’t even close, or looking at each other. At one point Jackson is addressing the audience with his thoughts, and as he swings his fists, his opponent folds over as if hit. It might sound stupid, but it works, the power of the words and the visual effect making the fact no punch really landed so unimportant.
This was a play that left me stunned on so many levels; I was in awe of not just the brilliance of the acting, the writing and the actors, but it also left me wanting to know more about the real boxer, and the history behind him and the real fight. Something that I did as soon as I was home, reading up on the real boxer and the issues around the troubles that the fight caused.
And it was a play I wanted to talk about, the first thing I did on leaving was text a friend with the less than subtle message “fucking hell that was powerful”, maybe not my most eloquent use of words, but I feel expressed how I felt in that moment.
Perhaps it’s not until the encore tonight, the epic eighteen minutes of Lights, that some people may have first glanced to the wings of the stage, as the first five minutes of the song are basically performed there; built up layer by layer on piano and programming by Danny Griffiths and Darius Keeler, the founding members of Archive, and yet two guys clearly happy to remain out of the limelight, leaving that to the two vocalists who do take the center stage for the rest of the night.
It’s normal at a gig that the focus is on the singer, or at a push the lead guitarist. After all, these are usually the guys thrust to the front of the stage and are the main actors in the performance. And more often than not, the singer is also the main man in the band and has an ego so big that heaven forbid you don’t look at him all night long.
But Archive are an abnormality in this basic concept. The heart of the band stay almost hidden in the wings with their keyboards and electronic paraphernalia, making the wall of sound that allows the others to work around them and the audience to feed on with ecstasy. At times it can seem they are doing nothing except watching the rest of the band, one just waving arms furiously, arms pumping so fast that at times I was genuinely worried he was going to either disconnect his shoulder or punch himself in the face. In fact once your eyes were able to draw away from center stage, this did become a sight that you just had to keep going back to, seeing him do what I’m sure so many of us did as kids, waving arms around, pretending to play guitar or conducting the rest of the band.
The two vocalists complement each other well, enough contrast in their styles that you never really question the need for both of them. Opening tracks “Feel It” and “Fuck U” have an edge to them that work well for the more flamboyant nature of one, while as the tone changes completely for “Dangervisit” and “Finding It So Hard” the softer tones of the second vocalist make it seem as if every band should be doing it this way.
The evening is a build up of sound, there is little pause at all as song after song merges from one to the next, very rarely does a song just end to allow time for applause, rather even as one song draws to its close, there is a natural transition immediately into the next. This isn’t a series of songs, rather a continuation of a sound that lasts from first note of the evening to the very last.
Archive are massive in Europe, and from tonight’s performance you can see how they could hold stadiums and festival crowds in the palms of their hands, slipping from rock band to electronic to god knows what else with infinite ease. It’s just a real shame that for a British band they can go so unnoticed here, and yet thankfully while it could be easy to just go through the motions in a venue so much smaller than what they normally play in the rest of Europe, they still clearly put everything into tonight.
Tonight was a gig that will stick in the mind for a long time, and yet if asked about individual songs, it’s almost impossible to name any, rather it is the overall feel of the night, of the power of the sound, and of course of the arm waving madness of our man in the wings.
About halfway through his set, Nick Mulvey announced he wanted to try something; to do a purely acoustic song, and not only that, but do it in the middle of the crowd, not from the stage. Well Nick, you may be an incredible guitar player, you may write the most beautiful songs with the most amazing hooks, but you are not yet godlike enough to do that successfully, not in the Roundhouse at least.
It was an error that almost destroyed the whole gig. Anyone who knows the Roundhouse will know the name describes the venue perfectly, it’s very round. You stand in the middle and most of the audience is so widely spread only those immediately around or up on the small balcony can see a thing. And because no one had a clue what was going on, we weren’t even sure you had started or what was happening, well, people just got bored. The first most of us knew something had happened was when a cheer went up and he suddenly reappeared on the stage asking “was that good, did you hear?” No Nick, we fucking didn’t and all you did was give the idiots around us more reason to just talk.
The big problem tonight was that it appeared too many people were there for reasons other than the music. Clearly Nick Mulvey is a cool act to see right now, and playing at Camden’s Roundhouse just doubles the cool factor. So I can only assume people turned up for the sole reason of saying “I was they, how cool am I!” And with the mellow nature of much of the music, the subtle sound of every note, it was too quiet, the chattering crowds around me could be clearly heard drowning out so much of the music. One girl even had the nerve to complain about being asked to shut up. I mean, really, you would think we had paid to listen to the music, not her life story.
When I mentioned this on twitter, it was good, in a strange way, to hear others agree, even being told by one girl that she almost ended up in a fight for complaining about the same!
Of course, this rant is pointless, no one who turned up and chatted has any interest in reading about the night, they just need to be able to say they were there. Ignorant pricks.
….. RANT OVER…
So anyway, back to the gig.
Nick Mulvey is clearly a talented musician, I mean, he played the Hang in his time with former band, Portico Quartet (look it up, it’s real! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hang_(instrument))and he seems to have put together a band that can support him in highlighting that talent, although he now concentrates on the guitar, maybe a good career move if he wants a little more commercial attention.
He walked casually on stage, baseball cap in place, which seems almost to be a trademark look, I’m sure it is the same one he wears on the album cover? No theatrics as he takes centre stage, the band giving him all the space, afterall, it is him we have come to see and hear.
From the opening bars of Alisa Craig, its gentle sweeping sound gradually building up, the audience, at least those of us who were interested, were rapt. The Roundhouse allowing his sound to flow and fill the room, the minute detail of his guitar work crystal clear.
He rattles through song after song, flawlessly, with the majority of the audience in his hand. As the band leaves him alone to do an acoustic “I Don’t Want To Go Home” I’m starting to think he can’t do any wrong. And then, that fatal error, the acoustic song in the crowd.
He returns to the stage and is straight back into the music again, but he’s lost parts of the audience now, and the beauty of the sound starts to get lost as it fights against the background chatter of those idiots who think this is a pub and the music is for their background pleasure while they talk about their boring lives… yes maybe unfair, but fuck ’em, rude c’~#s.
Maybe “The Trellis” is not the right song to have resumed with, it’s too subtle, too soft, and not powerful enough to stop the chatters, or loud enough to drown them out. Even the distinctive opening of the album’s title track, “First Mind” doesn’t do enough to stop them talking, so again, the lovely sound is half lost.
It’s only when he draws the main set to a close with “Cucurucu”, probably his most singalong track, the chatters seem to remember why they were there. I could almost have laughed when one such person declared at the top of her voice, “oh I love this one” and finally shuts up. The response that we should have given her is “we loved the rest, more than your boring monotone voice”, but I doubt she would have noticed the irony.
The two song encore returned us to the start of the evening, the audience seemingly more engaged again, and as the sounds of “Nitrous” built up, again the night seemed perfect, and over too quickly.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the gig, apart from the five minutes of silence wondering what on earth was going on, not able to hear a sound. So, a good night, a great musician, let down by a bad attempt at connecting with the audience, and further by a lack of respect from certain parts of an audience who should have stayed in the pub.
So Nick, if you are reading this, I will come to see you again, as long as you promise not to try to sing in the middle of the audience again (unless it’s right next to me, I am selfish like that) and if you promise to remind your audience to shut up so the rest of us can enjoy your performance. Do we have a deal?
At The Royal Court, 27 February 2015
So it’s now two days since I saw How To Hold Your Breath, and to be honest, I’m still trying to decide what it was all about. It is certainly an ambitious piece of work; so ambitious that after sitting through it for nearly two hours, I then spent my tube journey home thinking about it, followed by a 90 minute drive down to Kent still discussing it, waking up the following morning trying to work it out further, and since then going online to read how others have interrupted it all.
Is this a problem or a criticism though? Of course not, because the one thing I was sure about was that on Friday evening at about 9.30pm as the play finished, I knew I had spent two hours enjoying what was in front of me. The questions I had were simply “why did I enjoy it?” and “what the hell did that all just mean?”
“Why” is the simple question. Great performances, witty dialogue and thought provoking. Maxine Peake as Dana dominates the stage, but is well supported from all sides, especially with the Liberian who has the best lines of them all. All the ingredients are there to pass two hours in confused enjoyment. The meaning though, well, that is much more complicated.
A few minutes into the play, and the idea behind the play seemed so obvious. Girl chats up man and invites him back for the night. The next morning he tries to pay her, assuming she was a prostitute because “girls don’t just come on to me like that normally”. When she takes offence and refuses payment, he turns nasty, declares himself as a demon, that he will not be in her debt and she will regret this so much that she will be begging to take the money within two weeks.
It’s a brilliant opening scene, seemingly setting the story up perfectly as Dana soon discovers a mark on her body that is questionable, and has a disastrous interview, all adding to her belief that maybe she has been cursed by a demon. She even visits the local library to try to research this with the aid of a very amicable librarian who offers advice along the way by suggesting suitable books, the titles of which get more and more direct as things progress.
So at this point, it seems the play is about this, her struggles against a curse, perceived or not, and how she deals with this, first defiance but slowly turning to desperation. Great, except it really isn’t this simple. As Dana finds herself travelling through Europe trying to get to Alexandria, things quickly deteriorate. Her bank card is refused, which at first seems part of the curse on her, but then suddenly it’s the whole economy of Europe that has failed and everything becomes turmoil, and there is much more urgency in reaching Alexandria as it is a place of sanctuary.
The escalation from minor inconvenience to all-out disaster is maybe too big and fast a step. It feels as if a whole scene was removed to link these two, and this I feel didn’t help in understanding the play, as for a short period it felt disjointed. But hey, I can live with that. It’s around this point that you start to question what is going on, what the message is. Suddenly the demon curse seems a red herring, now it’s about capitalism and the economic crisis that hit us all.
And maybe it is. Except there is still more. Because this doesn’t take into account the interview that was mentioned earlier, where Dana is trying to get a grant to study the “Consumer Experience”, how every transaction should be an experience more than just the exchange of monies for goods and services. Which brings us back to the opening scene where the man thinks she must be selling sex, and doesn’t feel it is a proper experience if he doesn’t pay for it.
Confused yet? Good, because so am I.
Then we jump again, as Dana and her sister are on a boat finally heading to Alexandria. It’s clear this isn’t a legal passenger ferry, too many people crammed in tight, and concerns over safety. So they are basically refugees fleeing for a better life now? Except it’s going from Europe to Africa, a direct reversal of what normally happens. So is the play about the refugee crisis as well?
This does produce the best scene of the whole play. the stage is tilted to represent sitting on the boat, the sound of waves providing the atmosphere, the creaking noises making for slight discomfort as you waited for something to happen. And when something does happen, the visual is stunning and extremely disturbing. It is amazing what can be done without the need for expensive staging or lighting, rather just throwing in the human body and the feel of disaster and panic.
The ending is just as confusing, the demon and the librarian meeting for the first time, at least to our knowledge, but clearly they are aware of one another from their conversation. I assume this was meant to tie things together, to give meaning, but it just confused me more to be honest.
So back to the original question, what did it all mean? I still don’t think I can truly answer this even now. I would love to go along to one of the many events the Royal Court put on around their plays, often with the playwright or people involved in putting it all together, maybe that would answer some questions. But for now I have to decide for myself what I feel it means.
So, we have demons, we have capitalism, we have consumerism and we have refugees. Maybe it is about them all, everything just thrown in one big pot and stirred until something came out that felt right. And if so, that’s fine. It’s a challenge, an enjoyment to discuss and read about it later, to see if opinion of others match my own as to what it was all about, or if they have insights that would add to my understanding. It just means that on top of nearly two hours of the joy of watching, it also gives more hours of thought after the event, helps to keep the brain active if nothing else.
For me the play worked even without fully understanding it. If you like to be challenged, it’s perfect, if you don’t want to use your mind, there is plenty out there for that too, just avoid this and most other things at the Royal Court. Yes it could have been a little neater, clearer, but at the end of the day, for me it works and that is what it should all be about.
Quite often when a band finds commercial success, it can be at the risk of losing their old fans. This is often pure and simple music snobbery; “Oh I liked them before they sold out” being the line you most expect to hear, the people who like to think they are music trend setters, seeking out the new up and coming bands to show how hip they are, then dropping them when they find fame, to show again how cool they are.
And other times, it is because the band changes; maybe following a style that is more commercial but less appealing to some, losing the edge that attracted some of their original fans. I know full well this has happened to me in the past, and I’m sure it will happen again. I like to think when I go off a band, it’s this reason, not because I don’t want to listen to them now they are slightly more popular.
And so that brings me nicely onto Elbow, one of the best kept secrets for so long until that pesky Mercury Music award win thrust them into the limelight back in 2008. Way back in 2001 with the long overdue release of their debut, “Asleep In the Back”, I was in awe of their beautiful landscape sounds. I wasn’t the only one, that album being nominated for the Mercury award at the time. But commercial success was always just on the horizon, and by the third album, their record label had clearly lost faith and they were dropped.
In that time though, a hard core fan base remained, and they stayed true to their sound. Then out came “The Seldom Seen Kid”. I remember laying in bed one night, hearing it for the first time on XFM, when the band talked the always knowledgeable John Kennedy through the album track by track, explaining the stories behind the songs and how it all come about. And I was once more transfixed by their beauty, their well crafted song, their sheer perfection. And I also listened to every track as the radio played them out thinking “This isn’t going to break them into the big time, this album is just too un-commercial, nothing to grab the mass radio audience here”, I knew full well me and the other devotees could keep them as our lovely secret without having to tell people that we preferred them when they weren’t famous.
Yes, ok, I may have misjudged that one then. A million plus sales later, a shed load of awards, world tours, I admit it, I misjudged it just every so slightly. And I am so happy that I did, because Elbow should never have been a secret, they deserved to be seen as a band that they made albums that should be cherished and held up as an example of what music should be all about.
So here we are then tonight, Hammersmith Apollo, a crowd packed in and waiting with high expectations. The staging is as simple as always, it’s about the music after all. About the only addition from previous times I have seen them in smaller venues is a small staggered section to one side for the strings and brass section, a few lighting rigs, a plain back drop, nothing to distract from what we are here for, fine music. If you are as good as Elbow, you just don’t need distractions.
The band saunter onto the stage casually, no great fanfare, just taking their places, a quick count in and straight into the latest album opener, “This Blue World”, a slow builder of a song that rises and falls and highlights the surprising smoothness of Guy Garvey’s voice. Then from the new to the old, “Any Day Now” a nod to that debut album, but showing that while they have matured in age, the music has always been of a high quality. This isn’t a case of doing a few old ones to fill the gaps, this is old songs because they deserve to be there.
In-between songs Garvey banters with the audience, at ease and at home, not long rambles, sometimes one-liners, sometimes a little more, on a couple of occasions giving a background to the next song or answering back some calls from the audience. He is a natural, maybe doing this for 20 years has honed his skills, or maybe doing a radio show on the side has given him more gift of the gab. Either way, it’s fine entertainment and the audience lap it all up. Even when he starts to tell a story about one of the crew who has run onto the stage, only to end the story with “I should have a punch line for that really shouldn’t I” he is still greeted with cheers.
But we came for the music, a run through the new and old. And while emphasise is given to the new as you would expect, the old is not ignored at all, at least one song from every album finds its way into tonight’s set list (http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/elbow/2015/eventim-apollo-london-england-13ca0d99.html), not always the ones you might expect, but with a back catalogue this good, they could play a different set list every night and it would still be of top quality.
They surprise the audience by throwing in “One Day Like This” early on, the song that is first on everyone’s lips when you mention Elbow, and the one you would expect to be saved for the closer. But it is dropped so casually in, “Here’s one you might know” declares Garvey as the opening bars play out and the audience explode ready to sing. It’s a show stopper, and will always be so. “Throw those curtains wide, one day like this a year would see me right” is sung back and forth between band and audience, Garvey directing proceedings, pitching it perfect, milking the refrain for every ounce of effect. And then as soon as he decides it is finished, fantastically moving on by declaring that the next song, “Bitten By The Tailfly” is about “getting drunk, doing drugs and going out to pull.” The contrast is perfect, both lyrically and musically, the dirty guitar certainly different from the smoothness of “One Day Like This”.
As the evening draws closer to the end, we’re treated to the opening two songs from “Build A Rocket Boy”, but the first, “Birds” is a total reworking, taking the original and adding additional layers to the point it is almost a new song. And then “Lippy Kids”, made poignant as Garvey dedicates it to the person it was written for who recently passed away.
Then after the title track from the latest album, with its brilliant vocal performance “The Take Off and Landing Of Everything”, my personal highlight as they end the main set with “New Born” another from the debut album, and a song with the perfect opening line, “I’ll be the corpse in your bathtub, useless”, a line I remember listening to in 2001 and still hear today and smile at its poetry.
And then I did something I haven’t done in such a long time. Living in London is perfect, never any rush for trains, but not tonight, a train was calling for my gig partner and I actually had to leave just as the encore started, so I can’t even tell you how amazing it all ended, as I am sure it did. But it actually didn’t matter, the night was still perfect, the band were amazing, Garvey was the front man he was always destined to be, and it was just good to see a band that I have followed for so long continuing to be seen by the bigger audiences, showing that they twenty years of hard word was well worth it, not selling out, not changing to meet the demands of the record label, just doing what they do until the world looked up and noticed them like us lucky ones who were there in 2001.
But saying that, I am actually a terrible music snob, and proud of it. But now and again, I make an exception to the rule, and for that reason I am still in love with Elbow.
There is a blackboard in the foyer of the theatre that simply says “287,182 people have screamed at Ghost stories. And all have kept the secret.”* The area around the number shows obvious signs of constant rubbing out, so it looks like someone has the role of updating this on a regular basis. Well, that makes it hard to write about it without giving too much away doesn’t it. But here goes…
The show is exactly what the title suggests, a collection of ghost stories all perfectly fitted together around a narrator. One of the things I enjoy with theatre is seeing how a narrator is worked into the story, and often a show will live or die on the strength of that one character. That is even more true with Ghost Stories, as the narrator, cast as a parapsychologist presenting a lecture, spends long periods alone on the stage, building the tension for the audience as he gives his talk that initially shows his disbelief in ghosts and ghouls, but as things develop you start to suspect something deeper going on in his denial.
The staging is well done. starting with just a lecture rostrum on the front of the stage with the curtain down. As the stories unfold, the set moves around the performers. For example, the first story is set in an old warehouse type building, and the simple set is just one room, that turns as the actor moves out to walk around the building, turning into a corridor, and then another room. Simple and effective, no doubt helped by the dimmed lighting and the fact the audience isn’t really concerned with the wobbly walls as they move, too focused on waiting for something scary to happen.Like all good ghost stories, they work best with an audience who are willing to suspend belief, who want to be scared. This is one show that just wouldn’t be the same with a polite demure audience waiting for the appropriate moment to clap and make any noise. Rather the show needs the background chatter as tension rises and falls. The writing is perfectly crafted for this, but what would you expect from a duo whose credits include The League of Gentlemen (Jeremy Dyson) and Derren Brown’s TV and stage shows (Andy Nyman). You can feel the withholding of breath, the discomfort of the more susceptible members of the audience as the tension builds, the shuffle of bodies as coats are lifted across faces ready to hide from the scare that could happen at any moment (https://twitter.com/GhostStoriesUK/status/553305308421181440 actually think I am sitting just under the words at the bottom of this picture.) It is this tension that makes a good ghost story, making even the most hardened viewer likely to jump when all those around you scream at just the right moment.
And as tonight’s audience included a whole school party taking up the best part of the front four rows, this audience was cannon fodder for the show. Even before it had started you could feel the tension. The eerie music and the flickering lights all creating a tense atmosphere that was having an effect even before the lights dimmed.
When things did really start and we got into the first of the stories, the audience were already primed, and just the rattling of a chain was enough to make some people yelp out well in advance of anything actually scary. But then, that is the art of a good ghost story isn’t it, those false moments when you expect something to happen, luring the audience into the hope that it won’t get any worse, when in fact everyone watching knows that soon something really is going to give you reason to scream.
For me, half the enjoyment tonight was the audience, and I do suspect this is the same most nights. Being in the third row, surrounded by the school group, meant I couldn’t help be drawn in to the tension as they almost sucked the air from the room as they all held their collective breaths. And sitting next to a young teen who spent the whole show with her coat pulled up to her chin, and at time over her whole face, squirming in her seat whenever things got even slightly tense, it all just added to the evening. Even if the clever staging and special effects weren’t going to make me react, having everyone around you jump and scream in unison certainly made sure we all got a fright too.
Ghost Stories is great fun, and even those who don’t do horror, it is still recommended. There is no gore, no long lasting memories of fear, it simply works well in making you jump, scream and then laugh at how simply you have been taken in by someone basically saying boo when you least expect it.
But remember, if you see it, don’t tell anyone the secret, or maybe the ghouls really will hunt you down for spoiling it for others.
* The number may be slightly wrong, and is obviously changed on a regular basis. In fact the words may be slightly wrong too, but the thought is right!
Dave Gorman could be described as a geek; the clues? He wears checked shirts with pride, and to base your whole show about Microsoft’s Powerpoint software, and looking like you enjoys it so much, yes, geek. But, as the superb support act, Nick Doody, points out with his opening joke about Excel (the spreadsheet software, not the East London exhibition centre) only a Dave Gorman audience would appreciate such a joke, because to be here makes us as geeky as Gorman.
Gorman’s act is not groundbreaking, it is similar in format to his TV show, Modern Life Is Goodish, which in itself is very much based on his previous tour. For those who haven’t seen any of these, the clue is in the title, “Dave Gorman Gets Straight to the Point (The powerpoint)”. It’s stand up comedy with visual aids. Rather than just describe a scene, Gorman shows you a picture as well. When he talks about pineapples in breakfast bars at his hotel, he provides first a picture of a fruit bowl with a single pineapple in its centre, and as he suggests no one would ever take the pineapple as it would be too greedy, he then clicks to the next picture, himself grinning happily as he holds up the pineapple proudly taken from said breakfast bar.
And when he wants to make a point, he shows a graph. The show opens with Gorman singing “If you’re happy and you know it”, using the large screen to project the words and encourage the audience to clap at the right moments. And this leads to him quickly dissecting the song, expressing confusion over the part where it goes, “and you know it”, questioning how you would not know you were happy. In itself a clever observation, but given this is a powerpoint presentation, he then proceeds to express these thoughts in graphical terms, showing happiness against awareness. Clever, damn geeky, and very funny.
This is basically how the show proceeds, thoughts translated into visual aids. Sometimes they are just additions to support the humour, other times they are vital, being the punch line themselves. He covers familiar themes, Twitter and Facebook always favourite items for his humour, this tour using his own mum’s twitter account for great comic effect. And then there is his love of a practical joke, going into the finest detail in faking a TV show just to prank members of his production team; “Kneecaps Recapped” may in his head be a fictional show, but I wonder if some TV executive watches the show and starts to get an idea! These are all themes he and many others may have covered before, but in his expert hands, he brings whole new angles to them that keep the audience guessing where it is going.
Another thing Gorman has done before through previous shows and TV work is “Found Poems”, taking lines he finds in the comment sections of news items on the internet to put together a poem that he reads over patriotic music. What are probably the most banal of comments come alive in his hands, the words flashing up on the screen, various sizes to emphasise the important parts, or maybe important should actually read absurd. It’s another clever and simple trick that not only has the audience laughing out, but at times Gorman himself as if he hasn’t read them previously before. He clearly enjoys himself and I always enjoy seeing a comic lose his way briefly with his own laughter.
As he does the final Found Poem to end the show, he is assisted by Nick Doody, the support act, who shows not only can he tell a good joke but play a reasonable piano. The pair are in fine form tonight, with Doody going off script with a little piano solo that has Gorman struggling to remain serious and making very inappropriate hand signals towards him.
And it is Doody who almost steals the final laugh of the night, completely throwing Gorman off his stride with an impromptu moment of genius; as Gorman brings the show back to the earlier theme of pineapples, Doody reaches down and pulls up a pineapple turned into a drink, complete with umbrella and straw, slapping it down on the piano right in front of a gawping Gorman; a visual gag that doesn’t need to be done on Powerpoint to hit its target successfully; Gorman himself is left speechless and takes a moment to compose himself to finish the show.
Gorman is a master of Powerpoint and uses it to bring alive his humour. And unlike the past tour when he was unable to bring out a DVD due to the amount of visuals with copyright issues they caused, you do get the feeling this time he has thought about that and avoided so much product placed humour, hopefully with a DVD in mind. So, if you like your humour very visual with a good dollop of geekiness, look out for this in the new year.
As I wrote in my review of Hope a couple of days ago, I saw a comedian a few days prior to that play, and have been struggling to write about it. Well, I finally feel I have written something I am reasonably happy with, after endless re-reads, what feels like hundreds of cutting this and that and basically putting way more effort into this than was probably justified. Be nice to know that it was worth my time, so please, any comments greatly received…
I think before I start, I need to be honest about this review. For me, Stewart Lee is the greatest comedian alive today, the man can do no wrong, and I would happily watch him every night for a year even if his act descended to just standing on a stage belching, I’m sure he could even do that in a way that would make anyone laugh.
Right, I think that makes it clear that this is not going to be an open and fair review of his show, so if you fancy reading something more unbiased, I suggest you look elsewhere.
Well, maybe there is a slight complaint I want to get out of the way early on so I can then fawn all over his greatness later. And that’s simply that now he seems to be having a good TV run again with his “Stewart Lee Comedy Vehicle” show, he hasn’t done a proper show for about three years, rather the last few times I have seen him have been more work-in-progress shows as he puts together the series for the BBC. Of course, this really just means rather than get a 90 minute show, you get two 30 minute ones with a little extra at the start and middle, and they don’t fit perfectly together like a full show would.
And now I have made my one little criticism, it’s time for those of you who want a balanced view of his current performance to leave for elsewhere, while those who want to hear what a genius he is can hang around and read on.
I was fascinated by an interview a while back between Stewart Lee and former partner-in-crime Richard Herring, when they discuss Stewart Lee the comedian and Stewart Lee the person, and how they are two very different people. And every time I see Stewart Lee now, I can’t help but think of that, and how it does at times appear that to not be able to separate the two can lead to such misunderstanding of him as comedian. (https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/richard-herrings-leicester/id520831548 it’s episode 8, but I would recommend anyone who likes comedy to take a look at some of the others))
For anyone who doesn’t know Stewart Lee, any performance of his takes a very similar format. He might start with a very distinct topic, tonight its split into two segments as he works on his BBC show for next year; firstly it’s Islamaphobe and then it’s urine; he does like to mix up his topics. He will then start with some obvious talk on the topic, but quickly go off on what appears to be completely irrelevant tangents, only to bring it all back together at the end in a way that you realise has been so well constructed you wonder why everyone else isn’t copying his style. Oh and usually at some point or other during all this, he will get very upset, berate half the audience for not getting him, not deserving to be in his audience, wasting his time and that of the few there who are worthy of his time. It’s an act, but for those who have never seen it, it can seem all too real. So real, you get things like this…
Lee delivers a complex comedy performance, there is a need to pay careful attention, nothing is said without a reason, even the smallest throwaway comment is likely to in fact lead up to something later on. At times he will even signposts this, “remember that line, you will need it later” he tells the audience tonight, pointing out that we are too slow to be able to realise it ourselves. It’s this style that gets him a reputation of being arrogant, treating the audience with contempt, when in fact it is this that makes us come time and time again. This is comedy that gets better with repetition, each new viewing offering something new.
And it is the repetition that probably led to this follow up review from the same critic as above…
While Lee could so easily just stand and tell his style of jokes all night, it is when he seems to lose the plot that he really comes into his own. Seeing him stop after a punch line, looking distressed at how poorly a joke has been received, going into a rant of why we should be laughing more, why that joke should have brought the house down. Even when you know it’s coming, it is still one of the most amazing sights of comedy, Lee in full flow.
Tonight was no exception, sounding so genuine in his misery about it being the worse audience of the run (about a dozen sold out nights in the same venue had proceeded tonight) that at times you do start to question if he really means it. He does give the game away at one point when he actually laughs at something he said in his rant, for a brief moment smiling at himself as he tries to look angry again, then berating himself for it, saying he hates comedians who laugh at themselves, that it shows a lack of commitment to what is being said.
The highlight of tonight is when he starts to talk about why so many comedians kill themselves, “it’s audiences like you, basically you are all murderers.” You almost feel guilty in laughing, except you just can’t stop yourself as he gets more extreme in his ranting, and then proceeds to deliver one of the greatest and offensive lines of the night that first brings a shocked gasp from most of the audience, quickly followed by even more laughter. At times he doesn’t even need to talk to berate the audience, having set the scene with ghosts of comedians past around him, some of them calling him to join them, that the glances he makes from one side to the other is more powerful than any words.
Lee is a clever comedian, again some would say arrogant. He knows how to construct a joke, and in knowing this will go about destroying those very rules; he has previously talked about the rule of three, that all good jokes should have three elements, yet he so often pushes that three in four, five, even more, just to ridicule the rules he himself works by. Again though, this is a skill, each new addition becoming more and more absurd and making it funnier each time.
For a comedian who is accused of having such contempt for his audience, he holds us in his hand all night, and when the show is over, he even finds time to sign copies of the free DVD of the last series of his BBC show which he has given out at every performance; yes a clear sign of no respect to his audience isn’t it.
But then you see, the person who gives away the DVD and stays after the performance to sign every copy is Stewart Lee the person, while the arrogant man on stage we had come to watch and witness his contempt for us all was Stewart Lee the comedian, a very different person and it pays not to mix the two up.
Finally, Lee talked of a new tour later in 2016, and anyone who likes their comedy to challenge, to make you work at getting the joke, then I would recommend you keep an eye out for this, it will be worth all the effort you are willing to put in. Just beware, if you do want to go, get your tickets early, he does have a habit of selling out quickly.
So this week I’ve been out to see a comedian, and then a few days later, a play. And in an effort to keep this blog fresh, I sat down the evening after the comedian to try to write something about it.
And I’ve realised just how damn hard it is to write about comedians. I mean, what do you say; he came out, told a few jokes, the audience laughed, he said goodnight and buggered off. Because that is basically what comedians are all about. Obviously there are differences, some are funnier than others, some tell one liners, others tell stories with punch lines. But when you break it all down, it is one person on stage with a mic talking to you.
Or to write that last bit again, but shorter; I haven’t been able to finish writing about the comedian yet, but here is something about the play I saw this afternoon, ‘cos plays are easier to write about than comedians.
But first, big thanks to the Royal Court for the upgraded seat. I’d like to think they realise my amazing reviews are so important to their existence, clearly sending hundreds, even thousands, more to their door. Or it could just be that it was a Saturday afternoon matinee performance, a couple of weeks before Christmas, and it just wasn’t fully sold out. No no no, I’m pretty sure it was the first reason.
Hope is, at its most basic level, about a local council having to make massive savings in its budget due to the government austerity measures. Yes I know, it sounds riveting doesn’t it, who can resist a play about budget cuts and local councils. I know I couldn’t. Thankfully it does have plenty of laughs in it as well.
It centres around four local councillors as they deal with the difficulties of how to balance the budget following massive cuts to their funding. So far, so dull. At their heart is Mark, the deputy council leader, a man whose own son thinks he is weak and pathetic, and whose ex-wife runs a day care for people with disability and campaigns against these cuts.
Written by Jack Thorne, who I have now realised wrote the script for Let The Right One In, possibly the best play I have seen in my life, he does have a way with words and manages to squeeze plenty of laughs in-between the political point scoring. The interplay between deputy council leader Mark and his sixteen year old, know-it-all son produce some great moments; early on it appears that they about to have “the sex talk”, at which point the son asks “did you bring props, you know, condoms, a cucumber, maybe you have gone all the way and some lube?”. Crude but played out extremely well and full of humour.
It is clear where Thorne comes from, he has worked with Royal Court before, and right now this venue, like many others, is going through sweeping cuts and having to find new ways to fund themselves. And this play makes no attempt to hold back from criticism of such things. But it does give some balance, showing how to fund one thing will mean a need to cut elsewhere, and the difficulties faced in doing so. I could happily right now go on about the rights and wrongs of government cuts and my thoughts on all this, but maybe I should avoid that if I want people to read anything else I ever write.
While the politics is generally kept reasonably subtle, Thorne does allows himself one moment of preaching to the audience. The father of one councillor, a die-hard labourite, gives a speech to Mark about how things use to be, the solidarity, looking out for others, protesting against the wrongs of the government, doing things because they are right and not because they are popular, all things he feels have been destroyed. It’s an interesting scene and is the only time you really feel the politics is being forced onto you, but as it’s just the one scene, not enough to alienate those in the audience who came for the laughs rather than the politics.
The play runs through the year, showing how the budget is argued out, how decisions are made, and then unmade, how difficult this can be when there really is no choice, whatever they may try to do to protect everything.
It’s not until the very end that the meaning of the title reveals itself. And again, maybe this is Thorne revealing his true colours, his belief in people shining through.
Firstly we see what lies in store for the future, with Mark’s son showing he isn’t as cocky as he previously seemed, rather he is looking ahead, is realising that the world can be a good place, that it’s all about trying to do the right thing, that his father probably isn’t as pathetic as he first thought. And then at the very end, you see the councillors, the ones who have spent so long fighting about the budget, suddenly showing what they are there for really, to help others, to support; to give hope when before there was none.
For a change, I didn’t walk away from the Royal Court with hundreds of thoughts running through my head as I try to analysis what I have just seen. The themes of Hope aren’t earth-shattering, they aren’t going to change any political views of members of the audience. But what you do get is a feeling that even with the state of things today, there is Hope, and that there are people who care, who do things not for personal gain, but for the support of others. And it was this thought that I walked away with, a small glow that perhaps it isn’t as doom and gloom as we sometimes feel.