Review – Upfront Comedy, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th November 2018

UpfrontHaving basked in the glow of so many happy Screaming Blue Murder nights at the Royal and Derngate, it took us a surprisingly long time to dip our toes into the fun that is the Upfront Comedy shows, set in the perfect intimate atmosphere of the Victorian Royal theatre. Sadly we missed the last one, but we made up for it last Sunday night. The great thing about the Upfront Comedy nights is that you get such a range of audience members, all ages and all ethnicities, and it’s a wonderful melting pot that breaks down barriers by means of comedy.

John SimmitOur host, as usual, was the warm and welcoming John Simmit, who put us at ease with tales of love and affection, Handsworth style. He had a brilliant story about the time when, dressed as Dipsy – for yes, indeed, he did play that particular Teletubby – in Paris, some Smart Alec thought it would be a good idea to give Dipsy a piece of his mind; a typical Rue de Remarques joke really. It sounds as though this gentilhomme was more than a bit surprised when he discovered quite how well Dipsy can take care of himself!

TojuWe hadn’t seen any of the evening’s featured acts before, which is always exciting on a comedy night. First up was Toju, who (apparently) was on Britain’s Got Talent a few years ago. He came out, all guns blazing, with a brilliantly arresting set that challenged everyone and everything! There seemed to be a few almost deliberately miserable people in the front few rows and he did everything he could to make them crack – some he managed, some he didn’t, but the fact that they sat there stony faced against his comedy barrage was hilarious in itself. Toju then turned his attention to the Swiss lady in the front row and to her son, who were very good sports. The row in front of us was completely filled with white people, but with one black guy right in the middle of them. “Blink if they’ve kidnapped you, brother” he exclaimed. Toju is enormous fun, with absolutely no inhibitions, and a perfect way to start an evening of comedy.

Desiree BurchNext up was the only name in the line-up that I recognised, the effervescent Desiree Burch, all the way from LA via South London. She also has hilarity coursing through her veins. I loved her take on labels that might apply to her: she’s proud to be strong, she’s proud to be black, she’s proud to be a woman. But a strong black woman? That means one of two things: “You think you’re gonna get away with that?” or “You think you’re gonna get away with that?” (with menaces). She had lots of brilliant material about sex and fantasies, and a nice observation about how a tattoo can be a turn on – or not. Again, she could have gone on all night, and that would have been fine by us. Great stuff.

John RyanAfter the interval, our next act was John Ryan, of Irish extraction via Hackney. He created a great rapport with the audience, coming across like an Eastenders Mitchell brother but with a degree. A lot of his material came from a warm feeling of inclusivity, showing how we’ve all got much more that unites us than divides us. I really liked his style and he went down very well with the audience.

Drew FraserOur final act came from New York, Drew Fraser. He’s a true wisecracking dude, with plenty of ultra-fast patter and terrific confident delivery. I loved his observations about the trials and tribulations of wearing a Supersized condom, the best way of losing weight (which doesn’t involve the gym) and the considerable difference between vagina and pussy (penis and dick also applies). I’ve seen a few of Mr Fraser’s clips from American TV and I think he’s getting a pretty big reputation out there so it was great to have the chance to see him here in the UK. Oh – and a really charming touch for him to wait outside the theatre as we were all leaving, thanking us for coming – he’s clearly very well brought up.

A terrific night of comedy – and great value too – two and three quarter hours of it for 13 quid, can’t be bad! Looking forward to their next visit. You should come too!

Review – Rob Newman, Total Eclipse of Descartes, Royal and Derngate, 3rd November 2018

Total Eclipse of DescartesWe often think that “love” is a small word for something that encompasses such a range of emotions. “Humour” and “funny” are the same; they contain everything from slapstick to farce, to jokes, to clowning, to erudite after-dinner speeches and lots of other stuff in between. Good comedy should be challenging in the same way that good theatre is; and I love a bit of intelligent comedy that makes you think out of the box.

We’ve never seen Rob Newman before. I remember him, of course, from the days of Newman and Baddiel, when they packed a 12,000 seater arena; but Mr Newman is a different beast today. Wikipedia describes him as an author and political activist, and who am I to disagree? Over the past few years he has returned to performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, with shows like The Brain Show and New Theory of Evolution, which gives you a good indication of where his interests currently lie. And now he’s back with the brilliantly named Total Eclipse of Descartes, where he condenses 2,500 years of philosophy into a couple of hours and ponders on where we are today.

R NewmanDressed in two-parts grey three-piece suit and one-part brown-checked tweedy jacket, he looks like a classic young fogey; half boffin, half landowner. Your immediate thought might be (and I confess, it was mine) – oh no, this is actually going to be as boring as hell. But you’d be completely wrong. Yes, the whole thing does come across as a rather quirky university lecture; but, like the best university lectures, it informs you whilst making you laugh hysterically. Anyone who can quote a line like “I’m going to consider this problem philosophically – I’m not going to think about it” must know he’s on to a winner.

Rob NewmanFirst, we’re asked to consider the whole theory of selective education, and he tells us all about Sir Cyril Burt, educational psychologist and big fan of hereditary IQ. The man was an utter scoundrel, yet we’ve based our entire school system on his faked statistics for decades. Amongst other notables from the realms of philosophy we learn how Mr Newman could never get to grips with the essence of Jean-Paul Sartre, until he discovered one fascinating fact about him. I shan’t tell you what it is, but once you know, everything else makes sense.

We hear about how Pythagoras helped the world of early wheel technology with a story that’s as nice as pi (geddit?) and, of course, René Descartes, who thought, and therefore was. All the while, Mr N brings in modern references to illuminate history, and vice versa; and he absolutely crams the material with callbacks, which work beautifully. And there’s a little nugget of an encore, where he revives a much-missed old comedian to deliver a final, relevant message.

Rob NI wasn’t aware that Mr N had a Radio 2 series of the same name, where, presumably, he investigates philosophy in more bite-size chunks. If you’re a fan of that show, then no doubt his live tour would be right up your Karl-Marx-Allee. Given that this is much more of a comedy lecture than a stand-up, the time absolutely flew by. A very different format from what we’re used to; but it’s erudite, educational, and above all, very funny. His UK tour continues until 8th December.

Review – Marcus Brigstocke, Devil May Care, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 31st October 2018

 Devil May CareWhat could be a better date to see Marcus Brigstocke’s latest show about The Devil than on Hallowe’en? Hats off, incidentally, to the Derngate staff for their choice of fancy dress at work, and even a few of the audience came dressed for the occasion. Rest assured, Mrs Chrisparkle and I maintained our dignity in our usual clerical grey and hessian sack.

Marcus BrigstockeI’d heard great things about Mr Brigstocke’s new show that was a hit in Edinburgh earlier this year, but I already knew he’d be touring to Northampton later in the year, so we decided to let him come to us rather than vice versa. We’ve seen him in musicals (Spamalot, Barnum) and doing stand-up, and he’s always a treat. He doesn’t shy away from political material, as we first realised when he created his own comedy cabinet in The Brig Society, but it was his Why The Long Face tour in 2016 for which I am truly grateful, because, four months after the EU referendum, he finally gave me the opportunity to laugh my head off about Brexit, which my brain and chuckle muscles sorely needed.

Rob RouseBut I’m running before I can walk. Because Devil May Care is a slightly extended version of his one-hour Edinburgh show, Mr B first of all introduced us to his support act. Rob Rouse came on to a warm reception and instantly addressed the elephant in the room by asking who, if any of us, knew that there would be a support act on and that it wouldn’t be an evening of just Mr Brigstocke? Not one person owned up. So much for that vote of confidence for Mr Rouse. But neither he, nor we, needed to worry, because he’s a very funny and likeable guy who strikes up an instant rapport with the audience. He makes a good contrast with Mr Brigstocke, who tends to specialise in mental agility, whereas Mr Rouse is more at home with his physical comedy, such as when he’s imitating a lost vibrator, getting turned on by a tabard, or taking us through a long but hilarious account of his prostate exam. He got to know a few people in the audience, including the mother and daughter with matching kitten ears, and Mark the Mental Health Support worker who looked like God from the back (and apparently from the front too), which helped the whole show along. Sometimes twenty minutes of a support act can seem quite sufficient, but Mr Rouse gave us a full 45 minutes and left us wanting more. Great stuff.

marcus-brigstocke-devil-may-careAfter the interval, enter Mr Brigstocke, to darkened lights, a bewingéd jacket, red make-up and a couple of horns. I do hope he didn’t come in the train like that. Mind you, if he had, he could have successfully demanded treats all night with menaces. He took one look at God (Mark) in the front row and realised that he could, indeed, have met his maker. But this is The Devil, and he pulls no punches. In a brilliantly crafted, smartly scripted hour plus of truly hilarious material about the world today as the Devil sees it, we forget that it’s Mr Brigstocke on stage; apart from the occasional moments when he comes out of character – mainly to remind us how much better an audience we were than Lancaster.

m-brigstockeIn character he can challenge us. Hell is full, and he’s going to tell us why, and how he’s going to take back control of his borders. He’s also going to implore us not to go to Hell ourselves, as the criteria for entrance have recently changed; for example, being gay is fine, but teabag mismanagement is quite another matter. Along the way he asks us to suggest some famous people who should be in Hell, which led to some fascinating moments when he jiggles (mentally, that is) with the Jimmy Saviles and Rolf Harrises of this world; and though we all detest them, we couldn’t help but sing Two Little Boys all together. He got Andy the Thameslink train driver to make a very intimate revelation; we got inside knowledge on the true story of Adam and Eve. He considered the Hellish elements of the current political climate; and he even got us to confess that we all felt sorry for Theresa May. That’s devilish work.

Marcus BrigstockeThe meshing together of great stand-up material with the persona of Lucifer himself works incredibly well; it’s a superbly satisfying structure for the show and made you see a whole range of subjects from a completely different angle. We absolutely loved it. One of the best stand-up performances we’ve ever seen. His tour continues throughout the rest of November. Unmissable.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 26th October 2018

Screaming Blue MurderHurrah for another Screaming Blue Murder, and another episode in the continuing mystery saga, Would Dan Evans Get There On Time? Answer: No. This time there was a crash on the M1 which put a 25 minute delay onto his journey. I’m beginning to think The Gods of Comedy have got it in for him. And perhaps they have. Every so often you get a really weird Screaming Blue Murder; something about the dynamic in the audience that just doesn’t gel. This was one of those weeks. Firstly, they’d changed the staging so that it looked really showbiz. Black curtains in front of a lit-up, shimmering red curtain, to create a very glamorous effect. Not the usual cellar where the bodies are kept look that we’re accustomed to. Dan did his usual let’s meet the front row routine, and got on well with the ladies from the Danes Camp gym, and then he moved on to another couple (no names)… and that’s where it all got a bit difficult.

Dan EvansIt’s a bit bizarre to have to review the audience rather than the show, but to make sense of the evening, this particular Screaming Blue needs it. So, back to this couple; to be fair, he was fine. A cheery paper salesman whose answer to the problem of the diminishing need to buy paper because of the Internet was to “sell more paper”. Absolutely. She, however… I’m sure she’s a lovely person but she came across as a cross between Rosa Klebb and Lord Snooty. She sells people (her words) and lives in an “undisclosed location” and clearly looks down on Northampton. Normally the audience is quite happy to go along with the usual “What’s Northampton like?” “It’s sh*t” routine, but this time – no. “If you hate it, why don’t you leave then?” came an unexpected bellowing voice from behind. An audience silently quivered, not knowing where this was going. Dan continued with as much jollity as possible, but it wasn’t long before the voice came back with “Get her a lead”, which really was a bit much. If anyone had shouted that out about Mrs Chrisparkle, I would have stood up and demanded satisfaction with a duel in the car park. Instead, Dan turned to a couple of guys in the corner and tried to spark off them but they were as sullen as hell.

Luke ToulsonFirst up was Luke Toulson, who came on thanking Dan for putting us all at our ease and making his life easy! We’ve seen Mr Toulson twice before and he’s always good value. He’s done some of the material about collecting the kids from school before, but we loved his pretentious critiques of school plays, and the urge guys get to propose the higher from the ground they are. He ended with a great sequence about the one hour slot to deliver your sperm sample for testing and a great play on words about a medic’s wages. He was just what we needed to set the evening back on course.

Caroline MabeyNext was Caroline Mabey; we’ve also seen her before and, last time, frankly, she wasn’t very good. This time, well… she’s gutsy and has some good material but I still think she’s trying to be someone on stage that she isn’t. She reminded me very much of a younger Helen Lederer, with an act crammed full of self-deprecation; trouble is she doesn’t really get us on her side at the start of her act, so we end up just being onlookers rather than participators. I can see how it all would work perfectly on paper, but on stage it just doesn’t quite hold together. Mind you, the weird vibe of the evening certainly didn’t help.

Michael FabbriWhat the night needed was for the last act to bounce out, stamp their authority on us, and not let up until the final joke – and that’s exactly what Michael Fabbri did. We’ve never seen Mr Fabbri before and it’s been our loss. He uses his material and sharp delivery to take control without ever being aggressive or too laddish like some comics. There’s a fantastic sequence about spending the night in someone else’s hotel room, but his set was full of sideways looks at life and what I can only describe as inventive moments of ridiculousness. He was great, we’d love to see him again.

There are two more Screaming Blue Murders this year – hopefully they’ll run a little more smoothly than this one did. Alas, we are unable to attend either of them, so I hope you’ll go on our behalf.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 12th October 2018

Screaming Blue MurderAnother Friday night, another sold-out Screaming Blue Murder comedy club night. Last time, our genial host Dan Evans never made it to Northampton as his old jalopy gave up the ghost at Milton Keynes, and Meryl O’Rourke bravely stepped up to the mark. But lightning never strikes twice, etc, so surely he’d be there on time this week….surely…. But a 45-minute delay on the trains meant we were denied the pleasure of Dan’s company until the first interval. I dunno…. beginning to get a complex here.

Joe WellsInstead it fell to opening act and all-round political comedian par excellence, Joe Wells, to act as his own MC warm up before delivering his own 20-minute slot. With Mr Wells, you’re in a very safe pair of hands. We’ve seen him twice in Edinburgh, where you have to queue early to be sure of getting in, such is his word-of-mouth success. Us Northampton comedy crowds aren’t known for our fondness for political comedy, so I did wonder a little how well he would go down. I needn’t have worried. His brilliant political observations, as well as the other gems in his act were as well received as I have ever seen any Northampton audience respond to political comedy. What I love about his material, and his delivery, is the way he swipes the comedic rug from under your feet and sends you hurtling in directions you never foresaw. And hats off to Mr Wells for being complimentary about Northampton. Quite right too.

Dan EvansAfter the first interval Dan finally emerged out of the murkiness that is London Northwestern Railway to give us a slightly belated warm up. He had his hands full with front-row Angie, ebullient and no inhibitions, and they were a pretty good match for each other. There was also Architect Nick with his plans for a million-pound rugby club in Towcester. We weren’t impressed. But we were all aghast at Dan’s tale of the delay at Wolverton station being punctuated by the sight and sound of a guy opposite him in the train clipping his nails; not discreetly into a free newspaper but proudly on to the floor. We all retched.

Susan MurrayNext up was someone we’ve also seen before a few times, Susan Murray – something of a Screaming Blue regular, this was the sixth time we’ve seen her here! She delivers a lot of great material based on accents – as she herself confesses, her Brummie voice isn’t an accent that goes skiing – and there’s a lot of mileage to be gained from her relationship with her strongly Glaswegian parents. She delivered a suitably savage put down to front-row Angie which hit home perfectly. Always very funny and quirky.

Stefano PaoliniOur headline act was someone completely new to us – although he’s been on the circuit for yonks – Stefano Paolini. He truly does have a gift for accents and vocal gymnastics, and we loved his “foreign languages in British regional accents” section, as well as his reminiscences of his interview with the school careers adviser, which were every bit as useless as mine was all those years ago. And he beatboxes – but not just in a show-off way like every other beatboxer, but integrating it into comedy routines which works a treat. He brought the house down and I’d definitely look out for him in the future.

Next Screaming Blue in two weeks’ time. Two questions – will you be there? And will Dan?

Review – Lads Lads Lads, Sara Pascoe, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 30th September 2018

Sara Pascoe Lads Lads LadsHere’s another comedian whom we really should have seen live on stage before now. So far I’ve only ever caught Sara Pascoe on TV game shows and occasionally on the sofa in The Last Leg. She always comes across as a jolly sort, with plenty of brains in there keeping the comedy coming fast and strong. But she also comes across as more than that; a really genuine person, not afraid to let you in to see the less confident and murkier parts of her personality. So I wondered if that’s how she would structure her live stage act.

Answer: on the whole, yes. She has a wonderfully fluid style, pacing her material perfectly, in quite a relaxed, friendly way. She’s not as self-deprecating as some (indeed, she has no reason to be) and in fact is quietly assertive. She says from the start that she’s not the kind of comedian who does lots of “crowd work”, so if you’re expecting it, sorry, but she won’t. In fact, she goes out of her way to say she won’t pick on anyone, she doesn’t mind if you get your phone out, she completely understands that this is just a show and real life goes on outside. I’d hazard to say that’s possibly a unique statement coming out of a comedian’s mouth.

Sara PShe absolutely crams her act with call-backs, and they start falling into place from a very early stage. For example, she tells us that she’s had a number of relationships with men over the years, and afterwards, they all turn vegan. Interesting fact. And then she winds it back into the material several times over the course of the evening. She tells us about a horrendous wedding she went to recently, giving us the name of the bride and groom which I won’t mention here, obviously, and again, she returns to it from all sorts of odd angles several times during the show. Other enjoyable stories that receive serial referrals include the reaction to an Indian takeaway delivery and how she gets on with her personal trainer.

Why Lads Lads Lads? I’m genuinely not sure. OK, she tells us that she’s had quite a lot of them over the past few years, but that’s it, they don’t really play a part in the rest of her material, which is a series of very funny, nicely near-neurotic stories about how she’s managing as a singleton. There’s a lot of great stuff about her yoga retreat in Costa Rica (which isn’t in Spain, apparently), and some very truthful observations about the importance of men paying the bill on a first date – even with the most fervent feminist.

Sara PascoeIt’s not a long evening out – about 100 minutes including a decent interval. But that’s very comfortably paced and planned, and it is a very funny show with lots to discuss with your other half on the way home. Satisfyingly intelligent comedy but with warmth and plenty of human insights. Ms Pascoe’s UK tour continues until the end of November – catch her if you can.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 28th September 2018

Screaming Blue MurderBit of a weird Screaming Blue Murder this week! With an incredible line-up announced in advance, and not surprisingly sold out well before the night, there was only one thing that could go wrong… and that was our genial host Dan Evans being trapped halfway en route, on the motorway in a car that wouldn’t go! A few frantic calls hopefully got him safely home but not via Northampton, where he had a show to compere…! So Meryl O’Rourke, who was scheduled to be our opening act, ended up as MC.

Meryl O’RourkeWe’ve seen Ms O’Rourke a number of times before, both as an act and as a commère, and she’s always superb with jokes that involve vaginas and mingling with the crowd; sometimes literally, sometimes both at the same time. However, at first, her sudden change of role seemed to put her off course as she was no longer comfortable using her prepared material in her MC role. As a result, we were a little under-warmed-up for our first act. However, she made up for it after the interval with some brilliant material that had everyone in hysterics. So kudos to Meryl for sticking with it and coming up trumps!

Ian CognitoOur first act, therefore, was the person who I am sure was meant to be the headline act, which again was cause for a little discomfort – primarily on his part. It was the excellent Ian Cognito, who, despite telling us he’s never won any awards, was the recipient of the Screaming Blue Murder Chrisparkle Award for stand-up of the year in both 2015 and 2016. He did his usual faux-aggressive, rough diamond act, with blisteringly funny observations, many of which go so very near the knuckle. He seemed to find a kindred spirit in front-row Reg, the lorry driver, and he even gave him a Kit-Kat after the interval. Amongst his gems, we discovered a new definition of cockney, what’s got a hundred balls and f*cks rabbits, and a charming new sentiment to be tattooed as a tramp stamp. He’s an irresistibly funny man who never lets the energy drop. Because we had basically lost an act over the course of the evening, Mr C did quite a bit longer than his contracted twenty minutes – probably double. A true trooper indeed.

Robert WhiteOur second act, and by default our headline act, is someone else who always gives brilliant value entertainment, Robert White. Despite his very successful recent appearances on Britain’s Got Talent, he’s still the same, quirky, hilarious and ultimately terrifying comic, with his brilliant off-the-top-of-his-head song lyrics and saucy interplay with the guys in the audience. This time it was good old Reg who got up on to the stage to help Robert with his unique version of I’ll Do Anything. No matter how many times you see Mr White he never fails to render you helpless with laughter, and he was on terrific form.

Next Screaming Blue is on 12th October. Hopefully Dan’s car will be working again!