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The ghost was washed out, muted, grey, ashen, blending with the stonework of the castle; no special effects and all the eerier for it. A good start, then, and the current National Theatre production of ‘Hamlet’ last Tuesday just got better and better.  I was made aware of the political, diplomatic and military context of the personal tragedy as never before (and I performed in it once, in another lifetime).

Elsinore as police state, black suited secret service agents bedecked with blue tooth ear pieces a constant presence; regional power politics the reason for the comings and goings.  So Claudius’s set speeches are all filmed by a tv crew and the modern dress tells you something in a way that period dress can never get over.  Laertes designer suit cool dude, Fortinbras in full guerilla drag at the end, Hamlet an angry misfit in ordinary well-worn-in off the peg suit at the start, basic student scruff in the middle, hooded scally smuggled back in to Denmark for the graveyard scene.

Rory Kinnear as Hamlet was magnificent;  I was exhausted emotionally just watching.  You lived his anger at his father’s murder – not just a plot device! – and he was a complete bastard to Ophelia.  Energetic and moody, always engaging.  Lighting up a cigarette during the big “To be or not to be …” soliloquy – brilliant.  Another neat twist: Ophelia’s mad scene, she has all her belongings (Rosemary a child’s rag doll … now there’s remembrance) in a supermarket shopping trolley – perfect for her line, “Oh how the wheel becomes it.”  Great cast and an inventive, exploratory production that never one that got in the way of the text, that made the text breath; it will stay with me a long time I’m sure.  Smart business suited Claudius, by the way, was the thin copper from ‘Minder’; sorry, I’m just too much a miser to buy a programme and at £3 no-one ever seems to leave one behind.  Huge excited buzz from the audience exiting the theatre.

The very next day the Kast Off Kinks at The Stables.  A fine bunch of musicians, I’ve had some great times with the Kast Offs at the annual Official Kinks Fan Club Konventions but this was, if you’ll excuse the expression, a proper gig.  And they were great, a 400 seater full house standing ovation from a mixed crowd of Kinks fans and civilians.

This is Mark II Kast Offs, ’80s vintage.  Still original drummer Mick Avory, of course, who I’ve never seen talk so much, stalwart bassist Jim Rodford and Ian Gibbons on keyboards, who it was a joy to hear for once, over a decent PA in a venue with state of the art acoustics.  And playing though never trying to pastiche the Ray and Dave Davies roles was, as ever, the excellent Dave Clark, who has, as they say, been around himself and was better than ever in a different setting.  This was one of a series of gigs the lads are doing so they’re a polished outfit these days, a bit more rehearsed than just swapping suggested set lists by email as per the annual Fan Club gigs.  But they are still obviously enjoying one another’s company and having fun.  Expect banter and anecdotage as well.

The set list wasn’t restricted to the Kinks hits either – still room there for Pye era b-sides like ‘Come on now’, album tracks like the magnum opus ‘Shangri-La’ and a glorious intro work-out to ‘Celluloid heroes’, not to mention a great ‘Better things’ as encore.  One is constantly amazed – despite it being obvious – at just how many great songs there are in the Ray Davies portfolio. And the Kast Offs do them proud.  Go see if you get a chance.

Quite a week, then, ending up Sunday for a change with a comedy gig, one of the semi-regular  ‘Fantastically Funny Fox‘ nights run by Chris Purchase and chums at The Fox and Hounds pub.  Fascinating evening on the bottom wrung  of the stand up comic circuit.  Don’t ask me who they were but no duds, some neat invention and a lot of laughs with enough edge to make it feel live.  Liked the young Welsh woman a lot; nice self deprecatory routine that can take include an Alan Bennett version of ‘Star Wars’ with ease.  And those 3 pints of nicely kept Timothy Taylor’s Landlord played havoc with my WiiFit age next morning (I’m not used to it anymore, see).

Briefly, I’ve been making my way through Robin Dodd’s ‘From Gutenberg to Opentype: an illustrated history of type from the earliest letterforms to the latest digital fonts‘ (Ilex, 2006)  which pretty much does what it says in the subtitle. It’s a stylishly presented large format formulaic survey of the evolution of printing and typefaces that falls a bit between two stools. Some of the potted  context is a bit obvious to anyone with a smattering of historical knowledge, while it’s set alongside technical stuff, the terms of which are not explained in the text. The major fonts over time get a fair showing; not exactly prose to inspire, but it does a job.  Overall, a decent introduction.

Finally, another reason why I like Stony.  The A5 bridge over the River Ouse.  If the artist wants a name check …

That’s “Fight useless tripe, Be ripe”.  Absolutely.

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Wii …

  • is in the house.  Wasn’t my idea but my wife wanted Wii Fit for Christmas.  And I have to admit I’m quite taken by it.  From the balance board talking to you with the voice of the other Inbetweeners when they’re taking the piss out of Jay for his “Friend” to the reality TV results tension of you in the spotlight anxiously waiting to learn your Wii Fit Age.   Anywhere between 26 and 74 , as it happens; do not trust the Mirren woman.  Oh! – the frustration of the Jogging and the great Burn Rate scandal.  I kept getting stuck on 38% … until I started tucking the Wii Remote in my underpants elastic.  The trick is to stay in step with your running guide.  Mind, if you go too fast and have to follow the dog it takes you on a more interesting journey, getting your feet wet walking on the beach at ocean’s edge (Remember, walking in the sand).  The less said about the friggin’ Hula Hoop the better.  Nor am I convinced about the authenticity of the yoga …  Even now, as I write, there must be WiiFit Anonymous groups meeting the length and breadth of the land.  Got 244 at bowling the other day; followed immediately by a career worst of 102.
  • are having to revise our long and proudly held rhetorical claim to be allergic to Booker Prize winning novels, what with Finkler already last year and now catching up with the utterly maginificent Wolf Hall (of which more in another post, later).
  • are heartily sick of the site and sound of David Walliams, Matt Lucas and the one dimensional Robert Webb (who used to be funny), who have been everywhere on tv over Christmas and beyond.  And Caroline Quentin and her bloody M&S dinner parties and Helen Mirren (see Wii, above, cf her tv ads for).  I’m not even going to mention Davina McCall, my first booking for the cabaret on the Titanic.  Of course Twiggy can survive anything, while buddhist Sandi Shaw was brilliant on Desert Island Discs (and when asked to pick her favourite disc to grab in the event of an emergency just said, “Nah. Can’t be arsed”).   Sick of Kenny Dalglish too; how are the foreign players going to understand a word he says when I can’t.  (Not, I hasten to add, that I necessarily have anything against Liverpool, save that Roy Hodgson was not given a chance.)  Sad that Alan Johnson will no longer be on the Labour front bench, a decent bloke who also did a pretty good Desert Island Discs a while ago.
  • are listening to Jimmy Reed again (after reading and being reminded of him in Keith Richards’ ‘Life’) – how crude and primitive it sounded to this callow youth back then, how much smoother and effortless now; and still exciting.  Effortless too, but so dynamic is Fats Domino; strange how those old rock and rollers sound so fresh now.
  • bought the Decemberists‘ new album ‘The king is dead‘ unheard and my faith was not disappointed to hear shades of classic Neil Young and REM in there among the new tunes (farewell prog-rock song cycles, I say with some relief); Colin Meloy has one of the great individual voices, his timbre as singer – is that the right word? – and writer.
  • are not sure we can be bothered to report on the last two Reading Group books.  No, I won’t, save to quote a couple of nice similes from Mal Peet’s ‘Tamar’ (Walker Books, 2005).  “He looked like a damaged bird of prey in a filthy nest” is one, “The houses themselves now sagged like grieving relatives”.  It’s a ‘teenage’ novel of the Dutch resistance, good on the boredom of being a secret agent, with a charming present day teenager catching up on her granddad’s past who has a way of telling her suitor, “Shut up” whenever he tries to flirt, but we all saw the main plot twist coming from a mile away and bemoaned the lack of any real presence or back story of the woman at the centre of an explosive triangle.  Not a bad read though, for all that; good on the dilemmas of resistance.
  • still cannot believe Arsenal got beaten by Ipswich in that first leg.

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Alan Banks and Annie Cabot are considering their situation in the final pages of Peter Robinson‘s latest novel, ‘Bad boy‘ (Hodder, 2010).  It’s after the storm but there’s plenty still hanging for the next book to pick up, something Robinson doesn’t usually do; for sure there’s always been continuity from book to book, but here there are various narrative strands left positively dangling.  Like Banks saying:

“But sometimes I think I’ve had enough.  I’m getting a bit tired of it all, to be honest.”

Beyond the music, the booze and the books mentioned in passing, how much is Banks Robinson’s alter ego?  And how much is Banks hitting the television screens effecting some sort of change in their relationship?  After the emotional intensity of the title short story of the last book, ‘The price of love‘, which took us right back to Banks’ decision to leave London, the tone of ‘Bad boy‘ seems strangely detached for a lot of the time, even though the action does involve Banks’ daughter as a hostage (something bad happening to them seems to be an occupational hazard of the daughters of fictional British detectives).

Banks doesn’t appear until page 67; he’s on leave in the US after the traumas of the last full size novel and another failed relationship, seeking some sort of epiphany, achieving a muted satisfaction, an “end of something”.  Thankfully we are spared a U2 soundtrack in the Nevada desert.  In San Francisco he’s reading Dashiel Hammett – ‘The Maltese Falcon’ – and again contemplating notions of happiness, achieving a few moments even.

It’s not until page 189, nearly halfway through the book, that our man lands back in Blighty with all hell breaking loose.  There are references to the happenings back in ‘Aftermath‘ – the book chosen for the (sorry – not very good) first TV adaptation –  and parallel concerns with the formal investigation of  an officer’s behaviour under duress (this time involving a topical taser).  What further makes me think that Robinson has been affected by his new TV status is surely the most animated cinematic passage I can recall him writing – the journey down the M1 with Banks at the wheel, Jaff – the bad boy – in control, hand on gun, and Tracy Banks the hostage, with Banks’s favourite CD , Mile Davis – ‘Kind of blue’ playing on the car stereo; that will work.

Robinson has written better books than ‘Bad boy‘ but it still has its moments and I’ll read the next one, no trouble.   We end up in organised crime territory (‘The Farmer’ with his damned compilation CDs of classical music); Jaff as public school and Cambridge educated villain in the ‘new’ Leeds doesn’t quite make it for me (what did he study?) and the level of gratuitous nastiness in London really is, well, nasty.  But we still have Banks:

“She sounded far too wise for one so young, thought Banks., who had been patiently waiting for years now for the wisdom that was supposed to come with age, to no avail, it seemed.”

One last point, a complaint.  In his acknowledgments at the back, Peter Robinson thanks,

“Last but not least, this book wouldn’t be in your hands today if it weren’t for the sales reps and the bookshop employees, so a hearty thanks to you all.”

The copy I read, and I daresay thousnds of others will do the same, came from the public library; my copy will be read at the very least a dozen times before the paperback comes out.  Credit where it’s due here too, please, to some public sector workers in libraries up and down the land who are not exactly having a great time of it in these days.

There’s a significant new woman, another strong female character among the many (hurrah!), in ‘The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest‘ (MacLehose, 2009), the final book in Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium trilogy. “Do you have any weaknesses?” asks Blomkvist.  “I don’t read fiction,” the muscled Figuerola replies.  She works out, used to do weights.  I can’t remember, I think she’s legit state security rather than police; I just thought, with a little weariness, ‘Oh bloody hell, go on surprise me, he’s not going to sleep with her too, is he?  He does.

Don’t get me wrong, the whole trilogy is still a brilliant quick read – inventive, intoxicating even; I’ve talked about the previous books, um, previously.  Another quote:

“It all sounds a bit … I don’t know. Improbable.”
“Doesn’t it? One might think it’s the stuff of a spy novel.”

Indeed.  But with this secret state within a secret state – ‘The Section’ – headed up by an old man dying of cancer and another on a kidney dialysis machine, it doesn’t do to linger too long in the real world.

This book picks up with Salander in a coma, so it’s only on half-life until she starts functioning and engaging with the world and the hacker community again. Emails and instant messaging make for excellent action drivers, and with cops following spies, private security following the Section and other combinations thereof, we romp along.  The courtroom scenes are nicely done, too, even though we seem to have a very different legal system here in the UK.  It does have to be said that there’s too much detail at times – do we really need the full security audit of Berger’s apartment, say – and there must be an appropriate and poetic punishment out there for whichever deeply annoying editor decided to fully punctuate acronyms like C.D. & D.V.D. let alone H.T.M.L. and U.R.L.

Salander still enchants, though, refusing to go with the flow.  When she refuses to touch a penny of her father’s estate, she is advised, “Then give the money to Greenpeace or something.”  Her response?  “I don’t give a shit about whales.”  I guess we will never learn what happened to her twin sister or how Berger (and indeed Blomkvist) copes with Blomkvist’s new love.  But a satisfying retribution is dealt to the bad guys, and there is a riveting end to the action (almost literally).

You can’t really call Sean Lock one of the bad boys, unless you find offensive the notion of his keeping an angry group of coeliac disease sufferers at bay – complaining the tastelessness of one of his rants on people who make a big deal of mild wheat intolerance – by scattering bread crumbs.  At the theatre last week he was very funny, riffing on a number of themes.  Like phrases that sound a lot better than the reality (and thinking ethnic cleansing meant dry cleaning ponchos); like resenting being asked if wanted a ‘Bag for life’ at the supermarket checkout – because he didn’t wish to be reminded of his mortality.  My favourite: his wife doesn’t like it when he treats his kids as if they were hecklers.

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