Monday, 19 August 2013

Four Star Funnymen

I have a few rules of thumb when it comes to star ratings.  Firstly, if there’s any doubt, it’s not a five star review.  Second, if I’d have happily paid full price, it’s probably a four star.  If it’s bad, but not so bad I wanted to leave/die/kill everyone involved with the entire production, their family, their friends, their friends’ pets and the bloke down the road who once lent them a fag, it’s a two star.  If I do leave the theatre feeling actively homicidal, it’s a one star.  Everything else gets three stars and some mealy mouthed words of tepid praise.

The five star and one star reviews write themselves, although in truth I only give out one or two of each a year. Not as a result of any sort of grading curve, you understand, just because that level of brilliance or awfulness is pretty rare.  I do write quite a lot of two, three and four star reviews, however, and within each range hides a great deal of variety.  I’m going to look at four, four star reviews of comedy from this year to give you an idea of what I mean.  In the order I’m going to deal with them, they are David Baddiel, Seann Walsh, Phil Ellis and Seymour Mace.

David Baddiel’s first Fringe show in fifteen years is less a stand-up routine and more a highly entertaining, intelligent lecture on the experience of being famous. Covering the highs and lows of being marginally famous, including the joys of groupies and the perils of Twitter, Baddiel’s anecdotes have the audience laughing and thinking in equal measure. Not quite the acerbic firebrand of his youth, Baddiel is none the less a charming, interesting speaker. Sadly, the show lacks the razor’s edge needed to elevate it from good to great. Although funny, one gets the feeling Baddiel is more at home with the written word than performing live these days. Regardless, this is an amusing hour of thought provoking comedy.
Assembly George Square, until 11 Aug, 7.30pm.
tw rating 4/5 | [Andrew Bell]

This review is one of the rare occasions when I wished I’d had more words to work with.  Baddiel made a point that he hadn’t done a full Edinburgh stand up show for 15 years or so and I would be inclined to say he still hasn’t.  Instead, Baddiel’s set felt like one of the better TED Talks – funny, interesting and erudite.  I tried to make this point in the review, but left out the TED reference, as I wasn’t sure how widely that would have been understood.  I’m pretty sure 90% of my friends would have known what I meant, but they’re hardly a representative sample of the population at large.  The show was also, by its very nature, rather self-indulgent and name dropping.  I couldn’t criticise this – it worked perfectly in the intellectual, humorous discourse Baddiel presented – but it would have been nice to mention.  However, there was no way of getting that in without going well over the word limit.  Likewise, I would have liked to expand more on the contrast with Baddiel of old and the new, older Baddiel but there was no room.

This show also typifies one of my problems with four star reviews; it’s almost – but not quite – a glowing recommendation.  It’s “good, but…”  Usually, there’s some caveat or another that makes it hard to wholeheartedly sell the show to someone else.  In this case, it’s not really stand-up as one might expect.  Sure, it’s one bloke, a microphone and a bunch of funny stories, but if you’re expecting a laugh a minute, you’ll be left a little disappointed.  If you wanted that, you’d be better with:

Seann Walsh does not get an easy ride from his sell-out audience – they’re in vocal, if friendly, mood – but he deals with it with the energy, wit and aplomb that characterise the rest of his set. From the everyday yoga positions to the only time he moves quickly, Walsh’s material is sharp and funny and his timing is spot on. Tightly scripted and razor sharp, Walsh’s set keeps the laughs coming thick and fast, never letting the audience pause for breath and segueing smoothly from one apparently unconnected topic to another. The only misstep is the ending, which feels a little padded and weak. Otherwise this is a show packed to the brim with high octane laughs.
Pleasance Courtyard, until 25 Aug (not 12), 9.20pm.
tw rating 4/5| [Andrew Bell]

Walsh’s show was a pleasure to watch.  Fast paced and funny pretty much throughout – ending excepted.  In fact, it was almost, almost, a five star review, but fell foul of my “if in doubt” rule of thumb.  The ending just scuppered it for me and, in conjunction with a few odd spots of less than excellent material, led to the four star rating.  (On reflection, I’m glad I went with my rule on this one.  It was good, but not absolutely amazing.)

There’s not a lot to add to this review, to be honest.  It tells you pretty much all you need to know, except for one thing.  It was very much standard, observational comedy.  It would be unfair to say it was safe – Walsh is left field enough that the material doesn’t feel old or tired – but he’s certainly not on the bleeding edge of comedy.  Walsh’s set was classic panel show fodder.  It was funny, interesting, slightly rude, but not so much as to draw letters of complaint, and ultimately pretty damn amusing.  You could have taken any five minute portion and stuck it in the Mock The Week “Wheel of news” stand up challenge section without having to change a single word.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  (Although the section where he mocked other, somewhat more famous observational comedians felt a bit hypocritical and did contribute to that dropped fifth star.)  If you’re hankering for something a little different, however, you’d be better off with:

Careering haphazardly from faux fire alarm to technically perfect technical hitches, Phil Ellis’ delightfully chaotic set keeps the audience giggling, laughing and squirming with just the right amount of embarrassment. Nominally telling the story of learning he was an orphan, Ellis entertains with rambling tangents loaded with gags – the bit with the tent stands out from the stand up sections – while the banter with his tech, James, is consistently funny. The odd ad lib wanders a little too far from a punchline, but overall Ellis keeps us happy throughout, while his shambolic shtick provides a surprisingly effective backbone to the performance. Endearingly daft, cleverly constructed and solidly funny, this is a cracker of a show.
Underbelly Bristo Square, until 25 Aug (not 12), 5.25pm.
tw rating 4/5 | [Andrew Bell]

This show could almost have been written to appeal to critics.  After seeing a very great deal of “man with microphone” sets, it’s a real joy to see something with a twist that works.  The core of Ellis’ routine is still observational stand-up, mixed with a little absurdity, but it’s hung upon the gloriously constructed disaster that is his set.  From pretending to read his cues, to fire alarms and walking out audience members, it took me a few minutes to twig that this was part of the act.  Once you’ve found that mind-set, however, Ellis’ gig is cracking.  Unfortunately, it’s even harder to wholeheartedly recommend than David Baddiel as it’s straying further from the classic set up.  Not everyone is going to appreciate the craft Ellis displays in his chaos – it’s only funny from a certain point of view, after all.  I don’t really like the Alan Partridge/The Office style of cringe worthy character comedy, for example.  Doesn’t mean it’s bad or that I have no sense of humour, just that a recommendation to such a show wouldn’t work for me.  

In fact, to highlight this very point, I'd direct you to the review of Ellis' show on Broadway Baby. I'd suggest it's a pretty spectacular case of missing the point - except I do wonder if Ellis hasn't planted it himself.  "Going off on tandems" is just too good a sub-editing mistake to have happened by accident, surely? Also, this is what I meant by different strokes for different folks.  If you don't like it, it's going to appear to be a shambles!

Of course, if it's outright silliness you're after, Ellis won't be daft enough for you.  In that case, you might try:
Wild eyed, half dressed and totally mental, Seymour Mace’s alter ego, Marmaduke Spatula, won’t be to everyone’s taste, but he went down a storm with the audience tonight. Absurdist to a fault, Mace keeps the energy high and the laughs coming, with idiotic audience games (can YOU eat a bag of marshmallows?), bizarre intermissions and songs about people who weren’t pedophiles in the Eighties. In such an off-beat show there’s always the odd misfire, but Mace doesn’t let them linger and we’re straight on to the next ridiculous moment. The end is a little self-indulgent and his drawing isn’t reliably funny, but this is otherwise a rip roaring, ridiculous rollercoaster of a show.
The Stand Comedy Club II, until 25 Aug (not 12), 7.10pm.
tw rating 4/5 | [Andrew Bell]
We’re fully into the wilds here.  This is comedy of the Reeves and Mortimer branch.  Either absolutely hilarious or total crap, depending on your point of view, the skill of the performer or just whether you’ve had a decent meal beforehand.  You really can’t recommend this without recourse to the “if you liked…” trope.  As a result, my review really spends about fifty words when “like Shooting Stars, but more bitter” would have sufficed.  Maybe I should have gone with that?  But then, we’re right back round at referencing TED Talks for David Baddiel and, hopefully, you see what I mean about the four star, “it’s good, but…” conundrum.  Any of these four shows could be a good call for a comedy show, but any of them could fall flat if it’s not what you wanted to see.
Basically, if you go and see a four star show on my say so, don’t blame me if you think it’s crap.

Phil Ellis is at the Underbelly, Bristo Square until 25 Aug.  Seymore Mace is at the Stand II until the same time.  Seann Walsh is over at the Pleasance for a similar period.

David Baddiel finished his run on 11 Aug and buggered off back to London.  Wuss.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

The Curse Of The Average

It's Fringe time again, and I’m reviewing for ThreeWeeks (your best source for Fringe reviews, updated daily!) once more.  While I love the discipline of writing 120 word reviews, cramming in the flavour of the show, whether it’s any good and a touch of interest into a tiny amount of text, it doesn’t leave much room to expound upon the good, deconstruct the bad or just reflect upon the act of reviewing itself.  So I figured I’d take the odd review and talk around it here.  All the reviews I'm going to talk about over the next while will be from the ThreeWeeks website.  Drop by and check out some more reviews once you're done.  So, without further ado, let’s dive in with the first show I saw this year.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Turn, Turn, Turn

A late start, a long day and an overcast sky filled with rain found me walking home in a contemplative mood this evening.  Sodium lighting reflected off the rain slick street while traffic lights painted the pavement neon red and green and a cool, clean bite in the air nipped at my nose.  Autumn has arrived, furtively, like a thief stealing in the back door.

I love this time of year.  In truth, I love a lot of the year.  High summer evenings of endless light and deep midwinter mornings of hard packed frozen ground both make me smile quietly and step that little livelier.  But it is the cusps of the seasons that I really enjoy.  The first crocus flowering, a splash of colour amidst slumbering grass as winter gives way to spring.  That first, hot day of summer when you look up at the trees and realise that the world has gone green while your back was turned.  The first day when your breath prickles in your lungs as winter bites.

None of them, however, are as good as autumn.

Pick Me.
Maybe it's the brambles, dark and rich and as redolent of childhood as any madeleine.  Fleeting and free (both literally and metaphorically), I can't resist stopping and snaffling a few from any bush I pass.  I find it odd that other town dwellers don't do this.  (And I know I'm not the only one who wonders at this.)

Or maybe it's that other treasure of the autumn woods, the conker.  Is there anything better than the anticipation of splitting open that spiky shell, wondering if there will be that single, perfect nut within?

I always think this colour should be called pastel gold. 

Or perhaps it's neither of those.  Perhaps it's the long, sinuous light that spills across the countryside, turning straw into gold and painting the sky with pastel metals.

Or is it that autumn is a slightly bitter-sweet season?  A last hurrah before the quiescence of winter?  A sense of huddling up against the storms to come, of making good and mending before the chill seeps into our bones.  Of endings to come, as leaves turn and fall and the daylight shrinks away, ceding mastery of the world to the cold, sparkling night.

Maybe it's all of that, and more.  The smell of humus (one "m") as your feet crunch through fallen leaves.  The infuriating day when it is too hot in the sun and too cold in the shade.  The sudden downpour driven sideways by the wind.  Everything.

Hello, Autumn.  Welcome back.  I've missed you.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Normalising Single Parenthood From 3+

Or: I Totally Forgot About Postman Pat, Or: Well Done Cosgrove Hall.

After my epic whinge about Fireman Sam yesterday, my friend Vic pointed out that Jeff Pringle, the school teacher in Postman Pat, is a single dad looking after his son, Charlie.

Jeff Pringle
Charlie Pringle
And she's right.  I'd forgotten about Jeff and Charlie, as it's been ages since Alex watched Postman Pat.  (He liked it when he was about 2, but then moved on to Timmy Time then Fireman Sam.)  Vic did also say something about Charlie looking remarkably like another character in the show.  I just can't recall who...

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Socialising The Stigmatisation Of Single Parents From 3+

Or: I've Almost Certainly Thought Too Much About This But Dear God I've Watched This Episode Of Fireman Sam 20 Times And I'm Going Mental.

For the most part, the characters of Fireman Sam are pretty standard children's TV fare.  There's the dopey-but-likeable Elvis, the stuffy-but-likeable Officer Steele, the token-female-firefighter Penny, and, of course, our lantern jawed hero, Sam.
You could concuss a donkey with that chin.
The crew go around saving the various denizens of the not-in-the-least-bit-offensive-to-Welsh-people Pontypandy from differing degrees of peril, ranging from "mild" to "pretty much non-existent".  It's all very gentle and entertaining, in a brightly coloured, clearly designed to sell toys to three year olds kind of a way.  It's also very inclusive.  There's only around 15 - 20 people who live in Pontypandy (depending on the series you're watching) and at least 20% of them are from minority ethnic groups.  We've come a long way from the original Fireman Sam series, who's big concession to multiculturalism was an Italian woman called Bella Lasagne.

I wish I were making that up.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Fringe Frolics: part two

Just a sample of the tickets I collected over the last month.
So, the Fringe is well and truly behind us now.  A full week has passed since I've had to write a 120 word review of anything and it's about time I wrapped up my Fringe stats.  Now, I can't be bothered working out the coffee intake, or the junk food factor (let's just say both were WAAAAY too high), but I can tot up stars and shows easily enough.

Final Results
Shows seen: 45 (+2 I paid to see)
Mean number of shows per day reviewing: 3.75
Total stars awarded: 142
Hang-on-you-can't-take-a-mean-average-of-ordinal-data mean number of stars awarded per show: 3.1555...
Cumulative damage to faith in humanity (n of 1 star shows seen): 1
Cumulative faith in humanity restored (n of 5 star shows seen): 3 (we're in credit!)
Best Theatre: Solve.  An excellent little play of menace, guilt and warmth, brilliantly scripted and wonderfully acted.
Best Comedy: Jollyboat.  Pirate themed musical comedy.  So good I bought the merchandise.
Best Shakespeare: Othello: The Remix.  Othello, in rap.  Much, much better than it sounds.
Worst Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream (As You Like It).  An EIF production costing £24 a ticket and completely self-indulgent.  'Dream On', the entire cast of which had learning difficulties, was genuinely a better show.
Worst show: Poison.  Drugs are bad, mmm-kay?  Astonishingly heavy-handed and utterly banal.
Times Soaked: 5.  (After a bad start, August picked up somewhat.)
Times Sunburnt: 0.  (Just not that much.)
Stupidest Thing Done: Following The Noise Next Door around from 12:30am to 7:00am after a full day reviewing, when I then had shows to review at 11am.
Best Thing Done: Following The Noise Next Door around from 12:30am to 7:00am after a full day reviewing, when I then had shows to review at 11am.
Hours Slept on Tuesday 28th August (the day after the Fringe finished): 18.

See you next year!

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Unsolicited Fringe Advice

A ticket, apparently.
I'll provide an update to this year's Fringe stats at the weekend, but in the meantime, here's some unsolicited advice to acts and venues from one who has seen an awful lot of Fringe shows.


  • Cut, cut and cut again. If it's not vital to your message, it shouldn't be kept in. This is not just Fringe ADHD - although that's part of it - it's also a side effect of the venues. Chances are your audience will be hot and uncomfortable. Unless you've got an interval, I don't want to be trapped in the sweat boxes that are Fringe venues for more than an hour. Even with a break, seats tend towards the masochistically uncomfortable, so keep it as short as you can.
  • Work with your space and work your space. Fringe venues aren't theatres, unless you pay a lot of money, and they have issues. Chances are you won't know what those issues are until you get there, but once you're in situ, check them out. Scope out your audience's sight lines and adjust blocking and set as required. (An otherwise excellent show I saw recently would have been greatly improved by the simple addition of risers under the set's chairs, so the back row of the audience could see wat was going on.) Related to this, the Fringe is your best chance to go crazy with direction. Be inventive. Have your cast on stage to begin with, or use the cramped space to make the audience uncomfortable. You'll never get a license to be this creative anywhere else.
  • Pick the right play. Look, The Crucible is a good play, but it's one that demands range and gravitas. You need actors with CHOPS, damn it. You don't need a youth theatre. Or students. Pick something that works with the skills you've got. If your cast is a bit weak, do something with big, bright, easy to spot, and easy to differentiate, emotions. Not something doom laden and shouty.


  • Cut, cut and cut again. Have you written a gimmick to get you through your hour? Cut it, it almost certainly isn't as funny as you are normally. Doing your first fringe hour? Chances are you've only got 45 minutes of good stuff. On the Free Fringe? 30 minutes is quite enough. Get a mate and share the billing. All these apply to the big names as much as the little guys. An hour is a long time in comedy and it ALL has to be good stuff, not just most of it.
  • Don't be afraid to lose stuff. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard a comedian say "that's my favourite joke of the show, and I'm keeping it in even if it never works". If it doesn't work it has no place in your show. Full stop. It doesn't matter if you think it's brilliant. Your job is to make us laugh, it's not our job to find you funny.
  • If you're playing to ten people in a tiny room, saying "Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome to the stage... ANDREW BELL!!!!!!" makes you sound like an egotistical prat (particularly as that's my name, not yours). Even if you ARE an egotistical prat, that's not a good start to a show. Do something different. Sneak out. Dance out. Just wonder on stage and say hello. You're not at Wembley, you're in a back room at the Tron. Live with it.
  • Funny songs need to have jokes in them. Being cleverly done is not enough.


  • Stop trying so damn hard. Poker chips for tickets, themed bars, staff wearing "funny" t-shirts. I'd prefer it of you put this effort into slightly more comfortable seats, to be frank.
  • Allowing audiences to queue outside performance spaces then going "shhhhhhh!" at them is ineffective and makes you look like dickish librarians. Organise somewhere else for us to queue. Even if it's outside or a bit of a distance away, that's preferable to being harangued by someone with a t-shirt with a concussed cow on the front.
Thanks for listening.