Review – Comedy Crate Festival, Northampton, 9th July 2017

Comedy CrateI was idly thumbing through Facebook the other day and saw, as you do, that a friend was interested in a local event: The first ever Comedy Crate Festival in Northampton, thirty acts over two days in three venues: The Lab, The Charles Bradlaugh and The Black Prince. How fantastic, and innovative, to create such an event where comics can take a slot for work in progress towards their Edinburgh shows in a month’s time. We’d already booked to see Miss Saigon on the Saturday, but that left the Sunday free… £16 for a wristband allowing you access to see five shows seemed a bargain, although £27 for two days works out at just £2.70 a show if you see everything you can, which is, indeed, top value.

First, some feedback about the venues – we saw two shows at the Bradlaugh, two at the Black Prince and one at the Lab. The Charles Bradlaugh has an excellent upstairs room capable of accommodating a big crowd for a comedy gig; it’s comfortable, has a well-stocked bar, and excellent sightlines; my only criticism would be that it can get too hot, but that’s a common problem in well attended comedy venues! The Lab is a much smaller venue with a nice intimate feel, but the hard chairs are, well, ouch! The bar is rather poorly stocked and when the barmen natter to each other during the show, the noise interrupts the act (just a friendly piece of advice for the future!) The quirky Black Prince was probably my favourite; a medium sized venue with an array of different types of seating from hard chairs to sofa, to stools, so you can take your pick for comfort. It also has a lovely garden for pre- or post-show drinkies.

Each venue had five shows a day, all at the same time, so you basically have a choice of three shows for each comedy slot. We’re lucky enough to see quite a bit of comedy so we’d already seen a number of the acts on show; and I thought, in best Fringe tradition, that it would be a good opportunity to catch some acts we didn’t know. That meant no to Stephen Bailey, Larry Dean, Geoff Norcott and Ed Byrne (and from Saturday’s line up, we would have missed Stuart Goldsmith, Pippa Evans and James Acaster. Didn’t they have some good names?!) So I made my choices in advance, and very nearly stuck to them. Let’s take them one by one.

Tom Toal (3pm Charles Bradlaugh)

Tom ToalWell this is where it gets difficult. Tom Toal’s Edinburgh show is Better Than Before, a rather intricate narrative show about following your dreams. It’s extremely clever, but, after a very welcoming and enjoyable first few minutes, including one great joke, I can’t say that either of us found the rest of it particularly funny. There’s a big setup for a significant callback which relies on the audience recognising, or not recognising, the name of an apparently infamous figure in history. Neither of us knew who this person was, and as a result we felt that we had totally misunderstood the punchline of a long joke. Disheartened, it made us feel a bit stupid, took us out of comedy-mode, and as a result the routine never regained traction with us. Mr T is clearly a likeable guy but this really needed to be a lot funnier than it was. Hey ho, there’s still time, that’s why you have work-in-progress try outs!

Ian Smith (4.30pm Black Prince)

Ian SmithIan Smith seems to have a quiet, unassuming personality, until he lets loose on a flight of fancy, and he’s off like a racehorse! A naturally very funny man, with a great understanding of those bizarre things people do, with which he then confronts you, so you absolutely recognise yourself in his comic scenarios. His Edinburgh show is called Snowflake, and is all about uniqueness – and how it is that we’re all unique yet we’re all the same. Over-running by fifteen minutes (with subsequent knock-on effects for the next show!) he has way too much material, but what to cut out? Because it was all brilliant. Reflections of Tromso including marvellous mental images of shitting huskies, (he found out we’d been there, so at least I added a little something to his act); words that don’t translate into English, but really ought to; googling people with your own name; and getting dismissed via the medium of poetry. The show was frequently interrupted by people wandering in and just standing alongside the stage and Mr Smith did a brilliant job of weaving them into his routine. Extremely funny and I would definitely recommend catching his show.

Jack Barry (6pm The Lab)

Jack BarryWith Stephen Bailey in one venue and Larry Dean in another, I guess Jack Barry was always going to be the least attended gig in this slot – and indeed, there were just seven of us in the audience. Sometimes it happens. But that’s an opportunity for the comic to draw on their resources and keep going, ensuring those seven have a good time – and that’s exactly what Jack Barry did. His Edinburgh show is High Treason, a comedy lecture about the benefits of legalising drugs. This is always going to be something that divides an audience, but Mr Barry does a very good job of keeping everyone onside, and actually he comes up with some clever (and funny) arguments to support his case. He has a very engaging style and a confident, fluid delivery and I thought he was extremely good. I hope his show gets a much better turnout in Edinburgh, because it certainly deserves it!

Ed Gamble (7.30pm Charles Bradlaugh)

Ed GambleWe had originally planned to see Glenn Wool in this slot at the Black Prince, but for some reason got sidetracked by the prospect of crisps and alcohol at the Bradlaugh as we were walking by. I’d only seen Ed Gamble on TV before so he still counted as “one we hadn’t seen on stage before”. A huge crowd obviously had the same idea, and by the time we’d gone upstairs to find somewhere to sit, our only option was standing at the bar. Still that did give us an excellent view of the stage, and also the opportunity to observe a very serious looking Mr Gamble prowling around the back of the room like an anxious cat, waiting for his moment to pounce on the stage. Once on, he presents a really slick and confident act, absolutely jam-packed full of laughter. Much of the material stems from his running a marathon – including the natural show-offishness that it engenders – and a really funny, if essentially simple, routine on holding in a fart whilst being massaged. There are some wonderful flight of fancy moments, such as treating a tethered priest as if it were a family pet (you had to be there) or how the boys at his posh school would have talked to each other. And there’s a brilliant explanation of how you can tell you’re in a spa. He was cheekily challenged by a guy at the front and I thought his subsequent put down erred on the cruel, so beware of sitting in the front row! But he’s naturally a brilliant comic and this was probably the show during which I laughed the most. Maybe, ever so slightly, a little safe? He’s not one of those comics who will examine a serious situation in an attempt to change the world through the medium of observational humour and surprise revelations. He’s far more likely to make fun of a burp. But he does it so very, very well. His Edinburgh show is called Mammoth and I predict a riot.

Phil Nichol (9pm Black Prince)

Phil NicholIt’s interesting to arrive early at a venue when the comic is still setting up and if he doesn’t mind having a chat with you whilst he’s getting ready. Phil Nichol is one such chap. You can tell right away that he’s a perfectionist, and you suspect that if the show goes wrong he’s really going to beat himself up about it. He looks down at his notes for the show, sighs, makes a few comments about how it’s all designed to find out what works and what doesn’t, looks at his notes again, sighs, and looks at you as if to say, “please don’t hurt me, I’m a lovely puppy.” He has no need to worry. His Edinburgh show, Your Wrong, deliberately, I’m sure, spelt grammatically incorrectly, talks about making mistakes, but primarily gives Mr Nichol a chance to rail against the world with all the power invested in him by his hard-hitting, energetic, excitable style. Much of the material stems from his relationship with his family, where he gives us a vivid and hilarious picture of being brought up in a Brethren household – praise God and pass the butter – and the account of the tragedy that befell his beloved older brother. En route, you get an insight into how Anne Robinson refused to be upstaged by him, and a new explanation for why the chicken crossed the road. “Some people say I should slow down my words a little”, he confessed, shortly before the show began. They’re probably right. But what you come away with is an impression of a man possessed by passion, desperate to drive home his points, and creating a comedy craftwork that both satisfies your desire to laugh and juxtaposes personal tragedy in the context of humour. It really makes you think, and it really makes you laugh. I loved it, and I’m sure it’s going to be an Edinburgh smash.

And that was our day! What a great day it was. Huge congratulations to the organisers and I hope we can all do it again next summer!

Review – Cinderella, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 5th January 2013

CinderellaWe’re well into January now and all the pantomimes have finished for the season. Let’s have a big “aahhhhh”. When did the panto season become so short? When I were a nipper, the Palladium panto used to carry on until at least February, possibly even March if I remember rightly. Mind you, they were big variety shows, with enormous star names. The first one I went to was Jack and The Beanstalk, with Jimmy Tarbuck as Jack and Arthur Askey as the Dame. That was in 1968. The 1970/1 panto was Aladdin, with Cilla Black, Leslie Crowther, and Terry Scott. In 1972 it was Cinderella with Ronnie Corbett as Buttons, Terry Scott and Alfred Marks as the Ugly Sisters and Clodagh Rodgers as Cinders. Big names that carried big shows, that big audiences wanted to see. But now that we’re in the second week of January 2013, this Cinderella has already packed up her crystal slipper and gone to ground for eleven months.

Jonathan AnsellNevertheless, the panto tradition, it seems to me, is still doing amazingly well. Virtually every theatre in the country, outside the West End, has an annual pantomime. A source of bemusement to overseas visitors, this essentially British form of entertainment allows you to do all those naughty things that you’re not normally allowed to do in a theatre. The more rules it breaks, the more it conforms to the tradition. The older I get, the more I love them, and it’s an enormous pleasure to have discovered one of the country’s best places for panto, the Sheffield Lyceum.

Sue DevaneyWe went last year, for the first time, and saw their Sleeping Beauty. There would be no question we would book again for this year – and I am sure we will book for next Christmas too. At the heart of the Sheffield panto, is their favourite pantoiste (nothing to do with Sheffield by the way, he’s from Essex) Damian Williams. This is his fifth consecutive season doing the Sheffield panto and he’s confirmed to be “daming” again for the sixth time in Jack and The Beanstalk next December. He’s just such a breath of joy. Loud, cheeky, back-chatting, engaging, not afraid to make an idiot of himself, and very very funny, I don’t know of any performer who can turn his hand to this form of entertainment with such fresh gusto.

Ben FaulksOf course it really helps that Paul Hendy’s script, like last year’s, is so funny, and that the production is full of colour, great costumes, and a terrific band – who were responsible for one of the funniest moments too, when they vocalised the Lone Ranger theme. It seemed like a very happy company, and their on-stage ease with each other really helped the transfer of excitement and joy to the audience.

Kate QuinnellOur Prince Charming was Jonathan Ansell, an ex-member of G4, who shot to fame on X-Factor. I’d not heard of him before – indeed I thought G4 was some kind of international conference – but the young lady sat to my right was clearly a fan. Every time he came on she preened with pleasure, laughed at his lines, swooned at his singing and clapped really really hard so her hands must have stung. It’s true, he has a great voice and a bright appeal to make all the ladies, and a few of the gentlemen, tingle with delight.

Ian SmithSue Devaney was the Fairy Godmother, flying in from the wings, acting as a narrator but also popping up here and there in the story too. She used her Lancashire accent to great comic effect and, like the best Fairy Godmothers, could be both graceful and cackhanded. Absolutely perfect for the top of the tree.

Michael J BatchelorDandini was Ben Faulks, or, as Damian Williams constantly referred to him, CBeebies’ Ben Faulks – again there’s no way I would know him from TV – but he was bright and chirpy and a good stooge to Mr Williams and the Prince. Kate Quinnell was a very attractive Cinderella, wide-eyed and eager to please her horrid sisters, and occasionally showing flashes of a wicked sense of humour during those slightly wayward moments towards the end of a run – useful for when the scenery didn’t fall into place properly in one scene. Her delightful singing was equal to Mr Ansell’s and they made a great pair together. Talking of which, Ian Smith and Michael J Batchelor were extremely good and extremely horrible Ugly Sisters, daubed in grotesque make-up and wearing wonderfully ghastly fashion creations. David Westbrook was a surprisingly sprightly and cheeky Baron Hardup and I particularly loved the scene where he emerged as a Carmen Miranda backing dancer.

David WestbrookThe dancing villagers were all very entertaining and each brought their own personality to the ensemble routines – I was very pleased to see, amongst their number, Lee Bridgman, who we enjoyed very much in TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, one of the best TV reality/talent shows IMHO.

Damian WilliamsBut there’s no doubt the show belongs to Damian Williams. Whenever he’s onstage the energy sharpens and the laughter doubles. Very much a 21st century Tommy Cooper, he handles the usual panto scenes so deftly and wonderfully – like the “ghosts behind you” scene, where, as usual, he adopts the identity of a Sheffield icon – this time Jessica Ennis, which I have to say was one of the funniest visual images I have seen for a very long time. It was made even funnier in the matinee we saw as the bench they were sat on upended and sent Crucibella flying onto her backside and struggling to regain composure. Mr Williams also did an excellent Bruce Forsyth Strictly parody with Miss “Twice Daly” Devaney, a great sequence with Mr Faulks as they made a sketch out of the name of every board game under the sun; and, in the midst of some brilliant one-liners throughout the show, I loved his riposte when Cinderella said she loved him, but as a brother – “we could move to Norfolk?”

The Sheffield panto is something to look forward to throughout the whole year – make it a Christmas priority!