I’ve only been to Bush Hall once before, that was for a gig and standing. So arriving tonight, way to early than necessary as I always seem to do, with unreserved seating, the big question was, where do we sit?
The first row is certainly out, too risky with Nick Helm, he isn’t a comedian to stand on the stage all night telling his jokes, he does like to involve his audience. Clearly the two young lads already there when we arrived had the same thought, placing themselves on the second row, looking smug that they had possibly the best seats going, close but with a row ahead of them for protection. Or so they thought.
After some careful analysis of the situation, we decided the third row would be safest, although centre aisle seats nearly caught us out later.
The more I see of Nick Helm, the more I believe he has watched a lot of Stewart Lee. Like Lee, he isn’t a joke teller, he doesn’t do the observational stuff, he tells stories and uses the trick of repetition to drum home the laugh. While saying something once may not be funny, there is an art in saying the same awful line ten times that suddenly does make it funny. It just shouldn’t work, and in the wrong hands it would be awful, thankfully Nick Helm is fast becoming a master of his trade.
“Do you like jokes, do you like jokes, do you like jokes, do you like jokes?” he shouts as he jumps into the centre aisle and targets the man ahead of us in the second row (phew that was close was our thoughts as we watched him just in front of us, I knew the third row was the right place to be). Repetition, the line means nothing, it’s in his handling of the words.
Satisfied that yes we do like jokes, he declares he has five and then proceeds to tell them one after the other, revealing them as just bad puns, but done in a style where it’s not the joke that is important, rather it’s the act around the telling that we laugh at. As if to prove that point, they are the very same jokes he has used almost weekly on his BBC3 show. After each corny punch line its met with a comment from Helm of how great it is, or how well he told it. “Back of the net” met with a pelvic thrust.
And also like Stewart Lee, he is a master of melancholy. He starts positive, believing he is the best thing to have set foot on a stage, then slowly he drifts into self-pity, disappointment that what he tells us is his best joke is wasted on us. But whereas Lee’s act is in explaining why we missed the greatness of the joke, Helm’s trick is to repeat it over and over, refusing to move on until we laugh loud enough. Of course when we do laugh, it isn’t good enough, it’s in the wrong place (you can’t help but laugh even before the punch line after about the third time of hearing it) or the laughter is too fake. By the time he rolls around to fifth, sixth, even seventh telling, he begins to be disheartened, the eagerness of the start gone, and this is when Helm becomes the angry madman that you either love or hate.
As Helm hits full angry flight, he is in the crowd, clambering across the empty chair in the front row, and in the face of one of the young lads who had felt safe in the second row, that empty chair perfect for Helm to stand on and screech down into the startled but laughing lad’s face. “What sound does a bell make?” he screams inches from the speechless lad. “What sound does a bell make?” he asks again, shoving the microphone at the lad, still unable to answer. Repetition, over and over, until he answers his own question, “ding a ding a ding a ling” Helm finally tells him, then asks once more. “ding ding” replies the lad nervously. “Put some fucking effort into it, everyone else is,” he screams in the laughing lad’s face, “now, what noise does the bell make?” This goes on and on, all for a joke that when he finally hits the punch line is so poor it isn’t even worth a groan, but it’s not the joke that has our jaws aching with laughter, it’s Helm’s anger that we aren’t taking part enough, we aren’t worthy of his time and effort. “I could have been at home watching myself on TV you know” he tells us, then under his breath, “thank fuck for iplayer.” A slight plug for his BBC3 show maybe?
And the night ends with Helm singing, something that is a forte of his, a failed rock star clearly as he struts and swaggers across the stage, good enough that he could possibly sing all night and make it a night to remember, but then again, we would have missed his anger and misery, so maybe one song was enough.
Helm is clearly growing in stature, and well worthy of that. And while I may see Stewart Lee’s influence in so much of what he does, that really doesn’t matter, he does it in his own way enough to make his act different. And like Lee, you either love or hate him, there really isn’t much middle ground.
Should add, this was a “Show and Tell” event, not a name I knew but now will be keeping an eye out for (http://www.showandtelluk.com/). It included great supporting performances from Greg Ellis as compare, Phil Nichols and the great Kevin Eldon, someone who actually leads back to more Stewart Lee connections, having worked with Lee many years ago, I’d recommend all three of these if you get a chance to see them anytime.
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 I mentioned seeing Urinetown earlier this week, and as it’s still fresh in my mind, thought I would add something about it. Yes that name is right, yes it certainly grabs the attention doesn’t it, and yes, the name is fairly relevant to the show.
Was lucky enough to grab some cheap tickets to see this. Like most West End shows, face value tickets are expensive, but there are always offers to be found if you hunt around. I did get the impression on the evening that the discounted tickets had worked well, it was probably one of the younger audiences I’ve seen for some time at the theatre, which is never a bad thing. I was sitting behind a whole row of people who were probably not even 20 and I don’t think they would have been paying the normal sixty pounds those seats are. And they clearly were enjoying it, and adding to the great vibe in the audience on the night.
My initial comment on the show was that it was deliberately clichéd, corny and camp and very very funny. And I think that about sums up everything I’m going to say below, but do hope you will read on.
I’m sure somewhere out there must be a book entitled “How To Write A Musical”, setting out all the basic rules of any musical. I can imagine this book having chapters explaining the strict rules on what characters are needed, how the songs should be structured, just how much subtle campness is needed and of course explaining that every musical must have a happy ending.
And yes, the writers of Urinetown clearly read the book and mostly followed the rules precisely; so precisely that everything is completely over the top, and intentional so. It’s done so well it looks perfectly natural and so easy that you would think any fool could have written it.
The narrator, like the rule book must say, is both a character and an ethereal presence that at times steps out of the action to update the audience on what is happening, but does it in a very over the top way, almost explaining that things are happening simply because that is what happens in a musical.
Early on he berates a young girl for over-complicating things for the audience when she asks why the show is only concerned with water usage in toilets, the very central idea of the whole show, and not other things that would take more water. (I am hoping there will be a follow up show one day called Laundrytown.) While watching this I was strangely in mind of Stewart Lee (sorry for possibly a very obscure reference), a brilliant comedian who does very much the same in his stand up, following the rules of comedy so rigidly that at times he stops to explain why what he just said is in fact the best joke ever.
The campness comes in the most unexpected places; declarations of love between characters that just have no relevance to the scene; two thugs having a lustful embrace at the end of a fight scene for no real reason except that a musical needs to be slightly camp.
The music is as fun as would be expected, and of course as clichéd as required. There is the big opening number to set the scene, the romantic number when the love interests meet, the villains’ song to emphasise how evil he is, (don’t go if you are offended by suggestions of nasty things you can do to bunnys), the sad song when the love interests are unable to be together, and of course the required big number at the end of part one that sets the picture for what is coming in part two. And it’s all toe tapping fun.
Suddenly though as the second half progresses it slightly deviates from the rule book, again with absolute knowingness; the narrator explaining to the young girl that this isn’t a normal musical, after all it isn’t going to be happy with a name like Urinetown! But even with this turn, it just gets funnier.
As someone who rarely does musicals, this was certainly up my street. Everything was so tongue-in-cheek you just can’t help but laugh at it all. The clichéd nature was so intentional it just added to the humour. So provided you can handle the slight toilet humour of it all, it’s well worth an evening out.
As a slight aside, before the show and during the interval, was confused to see a number of young girls, (at my age, young is late teens/ early 20s) walking about shoeless. Now I know I said it’s great to see a younger audience, but I did think taking your shoes off at the theatre was just a little bit unnecessary and way too casual. So I was so relieved to find out afterwards that this was a charity thing, and that some brave soul was going the whole month of November shoeless for War On Want. If you want to help out, her Just Giving page is here;
Please do give a few pounds if you can, remember how rainy it’s been this month, surely that deserves some support.