Review – Simon Amstell, What is This, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th November 2017

what+is+thisI’d only previously come across Simon Amstell in the fantastic TV programme Grandma’s House, which Mrs Chrisparkle and I used to watch with regular and loyal expectation. Not only for Mr Amstell’s contribution, but also Rebecca Front, Samantha Spiro, Linda Bassett and the late Geoffrey Hutchings were all on brilliant form. Mr Amstell also co-wrote it, so that’s got to indicate that he’s a bright spark. I realised he also regularly indulged in a spot of stand-up but for reasons that are too dull to mention here, we never got around to seeing him – until now.

But I’m running before I walk. As a support act, Mr Amstell has engaged the services of another bright spark, Mawaan Rizwan. As soon as I read that he would be starting the show, I instantly remembered where I had seen him before; he made a very illuminating documentary for BBC3 entitled How Gay is Pakistan? Answer: not particularly. Apparently, he’s most famous for being a Youtube sensation, but of course I wouldn’t know anything about that.

Mawaan Rizwan 2There’s a similarity between Mr Amstell and Mr Rizwan – they’re both gay. However, there the similarity ends; Mr Amstell is lugubriously gay, whereas Mr Rizwan is effervescently gay. If Alka-Seltzer could turn you gay, they would market Mr Rizwan in soluble form. But whereas a large amount of Mr A’s material centres on his life as a gay man, Mr R plucks hilarious, surreal routines out of absolutely nothing, with his sexuality being largely irrelevant to the material. He rendered a full house helpless with laughter by pelting us with baby wipes, each time giving us a perfectly good reason why we deserved the pelting. He has another routine where he tries out new (silly) walks – a John Cleese for the 21st century, perhaps? Mr R’s physical comedy is absolutely first rate. He was joined by the very helpful Matt from the end of Row C who then had to spend the rest of the show nursing a bundle of disparate hardware items – don’t ask. He had some great material about using his boyfriend as a therapist, and he created a lovely callback regarding his previous job; get me being all comedy-technical. He had the entire theatre in hysterics, and I expect the cleaners will be hoovering up glitter for months. I thought he was brilliant.

After the interval we’re back for the main event, Simon Amstell asking What is This; this being life, the world around us, the daily treadmill that governs our waking hours. Can’t remember if he came up with an answer; don’t think he did. Mr A has a very diffident manner of delivering his stand up; he’s quiet and unassuming. Mr R bounded on stage and his body shrieked Hey Look at Me, whereas Mr A sidled on, and his body muttered Hey Please Don’t Look at Me; a very interesting pairing. Mr A’s material centred solely on his life experience, how he realised he was gay, and how his general awkwardness in life doesn’t naturally go hand in hand with his sexuality. He had a lovely story about going to Magaluf with a bunch of mates, and how they got on; a slightly less lovely story about going to Paris to find himself as a teenager, but still with a classic punchline.

Simon AmstellHis recollections and accounts are indeed very funny, but the whole hour in his company felt like one massive group therapy session. It’s as though the NHS has granted him one precious appointment to come on stage and talk about himself, to get things off his chest. Of course, most comedians spend their entire act talking about themselves – because, after all, they’re the people they know best – but with Mr Amstell it does tend to feel somewhat egoistical. Not, in any way, big-headed or arrogant, in fact far from it; more in that it’s totally his experiences, his thoughts, and the way life affects him. If you drew a Venn Diagram on how Mr A and the outside world interact, you’d just have a picture of him in a circle.

I did also feel that he lacks a sense of light and shade in his delivery; it’s all recounted at one pace, and in one tone of voice; very much in the style of the therapeutic confessional. Much of his material turned into an analysis of his relationship with his father, which was fascinating, and wry; but you didn’t feel like he’d welcome you laughing at what he was saying, because it would be quite insensitive. Having said that, there were clearly some stony-faced people in the front row who were unsettling Mr Amstell with their arm-folded frostiness. One of them made the tactical error of getting her phone out. Mr A wasn’t having any of that (and quite right too!)

Maawan RizwanI don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy his set, because I did. It’s just that after about half an hour I found that the initial smile and happy countenance that had greeted his earlier material had started to freeze on my face and I discovered that I just wasn’t giving any laughter back. The smile remained, because I enjoyed hearing what he had to say, but despite my pressing F5 in my head, it wasn’t getting refreshed into laughter. There are just a handful of tour dates remaining up to the end of the month, but Mr Rizwan is doing a full work-in-progress show at Contact, Manchester, on 2nd December. If you’re around, that’s a no-brainer.

Review – Jason Manford – Work in Progress (Muddle Class), Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th November 2017

Jason Manford WIPLast weekend the Royal and Derngate played host to not one but two major comics trying out new material for their big tours next year. At short notice, in the Underground, Sarah Millican was (presumably) giving great value to a maximum of 160 people in what must have been a very special experience. In the main Derngate auditorium, and on sale for many months and pretty much sold out all that time, we had the pleasure of the company of Jason Manford, testing the water with new material for his 135-date Muddle Class tour which starts in Leeds in January and goes right on to Newcastle in December.

We’ve seen Mr Manford doing his stand-up once before, back in 2013 with his First World Problems tour. He won us over with his easy charm and relaxed attitude. Four years on and that’s still the same; there’s nothing remotely threatening about a Jason Manford gig, you’re never going to run the risk of being humiliated like if you go to see Julian Clary or Russell Brand, nor are you going to be faced with particularly challenging material. In fact, Mr Manford was very proud to say that he would hate it if anyone was ever offended by his act. I reckon that’s quite an unusual attitude; many comics would think that if someone was offended by their material, then they’re probably doing something right. But not Jason; too decent, too much of a family man, too rooted in (and I mean this kindly) a light entertainment approach to doing a gig.

First World ProblemsThe first half of the show was very much work-in-progress; he had his list of topics on a piece of paper and depending on our reaction each got either a tick or a cross. To be honest, I can’t imagine he had too many crosses. Amongst his subjects were those embarrassing times when you say something and someone takes it the wrong way – not a very pithy description there of what was actually some brilliant material. He also told us about what it was like to share an Edinburgh flat with John Bishop (Jase, do you want a smooooothie?), the dangers of hosting the PFA awards and how getting stuck on a waterslide is a good way of discovering you need to lose weight.

After the interval Mr M assured us that the rest of the material was more tried and tested. Well he needn’t have worried, everything up till then was funny anyway. As mentioned above, his new show is to be called Muddle Class, which is the closest to how he can now identify himself in the class system. When you were brought up poor and things were tough, but then you made good and you’re comfortably off, you can’t say you’re working class anymore, but you never felt like you were middle class either. There is some great material about coping with your children when they’re posher than you; in fact, he draws on his now considerable range of children (five kids under the age of eight) for a large chunk of his comic material. To be fair, doing that can alienate (slightly) the non-parents in the audience. However, he is so good-natured and inventive in his comedy approach that you forgive him for slightly overindulging on the family side; and I for one really enjoyed his accounts of living with the weird, scary daughter.

Other topics up for discussion, and which will presumably be honed to perfection when the tour properly kicks off in January, were a common theme running through Disney films (you won’t guess what it is) and how you could use a car to advertise Durex – a really clever and funny routine.

JasonManford-MuddleClassProfileHe ended, not with a Q&A as some comics tediously insist on, but with a song. Yes, gentle reader, I did say that he had a light entertainment touch. Mr M has just released an album of show tunes, and he treated us to a rendition of Javert’s song Stars from Les Miserables. Well, if it was good enough for Dickie Henderson, it’s good enough for him. I have to say it felt… unusual… to end a comedy gig this way, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I’m as passionate about show tunes as the next guy. And he did sneak in some nice humour from an unfortunate pairing of words in the lyrics, which won’t ever have occurred to you before, but now you won’t be able to hear that song without giggling like a schoolgirl.

A very enjoyable, friendly, warm-hearted and very funny night’s entertainment. I expect most seats in next year’s 135-date tour are already sold, but I’d definitely recommend booking Mr Manford if you get your skates on!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 3rd November 2017

Screaming Blue MurderSometimes you think you can predict how a Screaming Blue Murder will go, and sometimes you’re way off the mark… Surprise No 1 last Friday was that they’d changed the stage layout (such as it is) so that it straddled a corner of the room rather than the traditional square to the edge of the room – and I think that different perspective really worked. They’d also studded the backdrop with little lights which looked very jolly and gave the whole thing more of a sense of showbizzy occasion. I hope they keep it that way!

Dan EvansThe audience were quite a weird bunch on Friday night. The front two rows were exclusively taken up by one group of people, celebrating Mark’s 50th birthday (Congratulations Mark). Unfortunately, it meant they were all constantly laughing at things other members of the party were saying, which didn’t mean anything to the rest of us, so there was a feeling of being left out. Mark, you didn’t look 50, but your explanation about your accent went on a bit. The good thing was that our genial host Dan Evans was on cracking form and played off those first two rows beautifully, comparing the comedic value of one man’s heckles against another, and going where angels fear to tread with a lady in a white jumper that looked like she had her finger in the electric light socket.

OlaOur first act was Ola, whom we’ve seen twice before in 2012 and 2013 and I remember him being an absolute hoot. He still is; with his understated and deliberate delivery, slowly setting up situations for him to rip down at his leisure. He used the concept of telling people “it’s your fault” in many different and clever ways, which was much funnier than it sounds. Some lovely observations about race, swingers on wi-fi, and a new definition of a hard Brexit. A real master of his art, and constantly surprising. A great opener.

Joey PageNext up was Joey Page, whom we’d also seen before, back in 2015. He was great that time, so I was expecting something similar – but, unpredictably, somehow he just failed to get into gear. He still has his made-up facts, which are still very funny, and he still comes across as an engaging character but the material just never quite hit the mark. He got a guy from the front row up on stage to assist him in one routine, but this chap was sadly a bit dull. Ah well, it happens sometimes.

Paul ThorneOur headline act was Paul Thorne, who was new to us, and he was pure class right from the start. As he was developing a thread, again unpredictably, somewhere from the back of the room came the sound of a huge wet chunder. Imagine the sound of loudly pouring a full kettle of water onto rubber matting – I know, sorry to be so disgusting. The rather inebriated source of the vomit was quickly ushered out, presumably to spend the rest of the evening on the toilet. Although more than gobsmacked at the interruption, this was a fantastic opportunity for Mr Thorne to guide him through the rest of his set; it’s startling how many ways there are to weave vomit into your comic material. Just brilliant. Additionally, I loved his material about why Theresa May was no good at the Home Office, and his observations on a Taliban Gap Year were genius.

So, all in all, an unusual Screaming Blue, but still extremely funny. There’s one more left in this season, in two weeks’ time – sadly we’re otherwise engaged, so I’ll look forward to seeing more next year!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 13th October 2017

Dan EvansBack for another Screaming Blue Murder at the Royal and Derngate, with Dan Evans in charge (as usual) with a motley crew of punters some of whom were a bit tricky vis-à-vis letting their Friday night mood take over. But we did have the man who makes the plastic pieces that create the folds in the manufacture of cardboard boxes… so that’s all good then. There was Chris the birthday boy and Robin the front row chap who I could tell was a challenge just from looking at the back of his head. And then there was the lady directly in front of me; more of her later.

Funmbi OmotayoWe’d seen all the acts before but they were all on cracking form; when that happens it’s like choosing your favourite pizza toppings because you don’t always need to try something different. Our first act was Funmbi Omotayo, whom we saw last year at the Edinburgh Fringe. He’s a disarmingly charming, friendly guy who uses his humour to challenge some notions of racism but he does it oh so kindly. I loved his take on how he ought to be a real tough dude, overflowing with intimidating attitude, but it doesn’t work because he can’t stop his coquettish little smile peeping through. He’s got some great material, including changing a tyre with the police, a glance at the Paralympics and his analysis of living in Hackney. He even gave us some political observations; that’s normally a kiss of death in Northampton because for some reason collectively we just don’t care, but he actually hit the mark with that too. Very likeable, very funny, and a great way to start the night.

Eleanor TiernanNext up was Eleanor Tiernan, whom we saw at Screaming Blue Murder last year when she was slow to warm up but then exploded. This time she was absolutely on the ball from the start. With that lovely Irish lilt to her voice, she has a wonderfully self-deprecating style, bringing in some subtle Brexit material by revealing that she had no idea that Ireland was in the EU. As usual she really comes to the fore when she’s (comically) examining aspects of the vagina – I won’t spoil it for you but she shared the most fantastic metaphor which still has me laughing out loud three days later. She also looks on hand dryers in exactly the same way as I do. A brilliant routine.

Andre VincentOur last act was André Vincent, whom we last saw at precisely the same Screaming Blue last year as Eleanor Tiernan… is this significant? We should be told! He’s the kind of chap you can imagine was a right Jack-the-Lad 25 years ago, and probably not much has changed since. He told us the problems of growing up as an André in Brixton, and survival at the Bestival Festival; he’s got a winning way about him in the same way you’d have fun with one of your dad’s mates who ought to know better. He was given a classic opportunity to go off-piste when the lady directly in front of me (see paragraph one) suddenly nodded off during his routine in the most dramatic way, head lolling all over the place, obviously taken into that very deep slumber moment when even a fire alarm wouldn’t wake her up. André’s reaction was hysterical, suggesting we all tiptoe off and leave her to wake up in the morning; when she did come back to the land of the living she was left in no doubt that her ten minutes of coma hadn’t gone unnoticed. By everyone. He rounded off his set with a great story about him meeting milfs in Halifax when he was a youngster. Beautifully told, and really funny.

An excellent night’s comedy! It’s on again in two weeks, but sadly we can’t make that one… line up looks great too…. You’ll have to let me know how it went!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 22nd September 2017

Screaming Blue MurderHaving missed the first Screaming Blue Murder of the autumn – and by all accounts it was 100% fab – we definitely made sure to get tickets for this one. Great to see that it was a sell-out, and that in order to get all the people in the Underground bunker, they had to curve the front row seats around either end of the stage. (I say “stage”; it’s more like an upside-down pallet, but you get my meaning). Dan Evans was back in charge, and on cracking form. This week in the front row he had to cope with Five Guys, not named Moe, but drinkers at The Yeoman pub in Wootton.Dan Evans They were jolly chaps, but if drinking at that pub makes you as follically challenged as those guys – then maybe I’ll take a pass. There was a posh girl called Victoria with her buddies and a guy called Graham who makes exceedingly good cakes for a well-known bakery company was celebrating his 31st birthday as part of an extended family outing. They were all very well behaved and contributed nicely to the evening – which is something you can only rarely say at this gig.

Tony CowardsWe’d seen all the acts before, but it had been a long while back for two of them, so it was good to get a re-visit. First up was Tony Cowards, whom we last saw back in 2011, when he came 4th in the Annual Chrisparkle Awards for Screaming Blue stand-up: no mean feat. In some respects, Mr Cowards isn’t an obvious joke-front-man; he’s quite reserved and retiring in appearance and voice; but his material is puntastic. He loves to take a word and put it in the wrong context in a throwaway line, thus creating some really funny mental images. I was well taken with the idea of a coffee enema (you never know when it might come in useful) and the constipated detective (you can guess the punchline yourself). But you might not work out what you get when you rearrange the letters of A POSTMAN. In his half hour or so he must have treated us to at least a hundred jokes and puns; he must be one of the hardest working guys in stand up, I reckon. He’s really inventive and very funny – even if the guy on the opposite side of the aisle from me wouldn’t crack a smile on his stony face. Ah, well, you can’t win them all.

Ria LinaNext was Ria Lina, whom we saw here back in 2013, and on that occasion, I didn’t think she made her material work properly. It’s always a little dangerous when the main topic of your humour is race – she has to tread a fine line between the funny and the offensive – and that last time, funny didn’t win. So this time I wasn’t expecting too much. Wrong! Her material worked an absolute treat. It isn’t an easy ride – I had to stop and think about a couple of her punchlines because they definitely challenged me as to what I find acceptable and what I find funny; humour won the argument, and I allowed myself to be swayed by the laughter of the audience. She also had a couple of excellent musical interludes – a big build up to a Brexit song – another bold move considering how much it can divide people – but that was hilarious, and then another about how she ends up sleeping with the boyfriend’s father, thereby creating a wealth of incest material. Lovely!

Steve BestOur final act, and someone we’ve seen many times, was Steve Best; as manic and off the wall as ever. If you’ve not seen Mr Best do his stuff before it can really take you by surprise; it’s a very special kind of challenging. One of the Yeoman pub guys was literally helpless with laughter for all the time he was on stage. To be fair, I don’t think he’s changed the act at all in all four times we’ve seen him; but it’s a winning formula, so why bother?! I do love the cunning way he ends the act with a visual resolution of a callback that you’ve got no idea had even been set up. As predicted, he was a resounding success.

Another Screaming Blue in three weeks’ time – can’t wait!

Review – Des O’Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck Live, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th September 2017

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck LiveWhen I saw these two legendary names were appearing together on stage I had absolutely no hesitation in booking straight away. They were among the very first famous people I ever saw on stage as a child. Jimmy Tarbuck played Jack in the London Palladium pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk back in Christmas 1968 – New Year 1969; it was my first visit to a London theatre and my first ever pantomime. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle couldn’t wait to get me in the front stalls to see how I’d react to the Palladium environment (which she adored) – verdict, I loved it. But, even earlier, in the summer of 1967, I was taken to my first ever professional stage show; on holiday in Bournemouth, the 7-year-old me had a seat to see Showtime at the Pavilion Theatre, featuring Kenneth McKellar, Jack Douglas and starring – you guessed it – Des O’Connor.

Jack and the Beanstalk 1969 castI’d seen Des O’Connor live just once since then, when I took a young female friend (in the days before Mrs Chrisparkle, c. 1984) to see a recording of Gloria Hunniford’s TV chat show Sunday Sunday – it used to air on Sundays, I kid you not. Amongst the guests was Mr O’Connor. At one point all the lights blew and they had to stop the recording for about twenty minutes. Gloria Hunniford retreated into her shell and wouldn’t make eye contact with the audience. Des O’Connor, on the other hand, got up and did twenty minutes stand-up off the top of his head, and, let me assure you gentle reader, he was absolutely on fire! From that moment, I’ve always had immense respect for him.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 1I’d not seen Jimmy Tarbuck on stage since that panto, and of course it’s been many years since he’s been a regular on TV; so I was very interested to see how he’s progressed, the young feller-me-lad. Well, I can report that he’s doing very well indeed. He’s 77, but looking at him you wouldn’t place him older than his mid-fifties. He still has that irrepressible cheekiness, a very nice line in occasional self-deprecation, natural confidence and authority, and absolutely immaculate comic timing. It’s true; some of his material isn’t very 21st century. Whilst Mrs C was pleased to note the total absence of mother-in-law jokes, they had been replaced by “ugly women” jokes. To be fair, they were often very funny.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 4Mr Tarbuck (hereinafter Tarby) still uses that classic structure for many of his showpiece jokes – I mean those that aren’t one-liners. He sets them up with a statement that will end with a certain sequence of words; pause. Then comes another statement, ending with the same sequence of words; another pause, whilst suspense/curiosity/anticipation builds. There might even be a third statement, that ends with the same sequence of words – audience by now making up their own punchlines. Then comes the killer final statement that will take the sequence of words and turn them on their head to potentially devastating comic effect. I remember him doing that in the 70s, and he still does it today – brilliantly.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 5Mr O’Connor (hereinafter Deso) has quite a close association with our beloved Northampton, as he was evacuated here during the Second World War, worked at Church’s shoes (very posh) and even had a stint playing football for Northampton Town. Today he still has that wicked glint in his eye, and at 85 he can still look down on young Tarby. But he did admit that he wasn’t feeling too well, with an ear infection affecting his balance, and would we mind if he sat down for most of his set; of course not – huge kudos to him for still going on with the show despite his health issue.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 3I’m going to forgive him for starting the evening with a terrible homophobic joke and put it down to the infirmity of his age, as Regan said of Lear. Moving on, with the aid of a big screen, he reminisced about some of his favourite TV appearances – with Morecambe and Wise (naturally), Rod Hull and Emu, Benny Hill, Bernie Clifton and many more. We sang with him as he accompanied himself on a video of him singing with Neil Diamond (are you still with me?) and bizarrely it worked, as the rafters of the Royal and Derngate rang out to the chorus of Sweet Caroline. Deso also led singalongs to Carole King’s Will You Love Me Tomorrow and Tony Christie’s Is this the way to Amarillo, but, sadly, no Dick-a-Dum-Dum, which I’ve always thought was a truly charming look at Swinging Sixties London. Isn’t always the case that artists never perform your favourite song? It’s an unwritten law of Live Performance.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy TarbuckThere was precious little hesitation in the audience to rise for a standing ovation for these two grand old chaps. For Tarby, he absolutely deserves it for still delivering 45 minutes of cracking stand-up. For Deso, he deserves it in recognition of all the years of happy entertainment he’s provided, even from before I was born. They’re still touring this unique get-together show for a few more dates this year: 7th October in Harlow, 29th October in Reading and 5th November in Newcastle. These young lads deserve your support!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2017 – Late’n’Live, 26th August 2017

LatenliveOur very last show in Edinburgh this year is Late’n’Live at the Debating Hall @ Gilded Balloon Teviot at 01:00 in the early hours of the morning of Sunday 27th. Let’s read that last blurb: “’Still the best late night show on the Fringe’ (Scotsman) is back for its 31st year! Different shows every night, but always the same recipe: one hilarious compere, four amazing acts, one incredible band, two hours of dancing and a whole lot of fun… Leave to simmer from 1am–5am and you’ve got yourself ‘the celebrated comedy abattoir that has slain a thousand comics’ (Scotsman). Comperes will include Scott Gibson, John Hastings and many other top names.”

I really can’t see us staying up till 5am. However, I’m sure some people will! We’ll just stay for the one hilarious compere and four amazing acts, whoever they are. Check back sometime after 3 am (or preferably on Sunday morning, or later) to see whether we survived.

If you’ve been following our reckless pursuit of entertainment over the past eight days, thanks very much for your loyalty! If not, I can’t blame you. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

And we fell at the final hurdle. We already thought that this was going to be A Show Too Far, and so it proved. So rather than watching this show, we’ve treated ourselves to a bottle of shiraz in the hotel bar. Rather a quiet way to end our Fringe week, but the quality has been outstanding. Hope you had fun too!