Laughing Horse @ Cabaret Voltaire Aug 22 – 25 (17.15)
Material: Delivery: Laughs: Room:
The Cave at Cabaret Voltaire looked attractive as we took our seats and slowly filled the room. It’s one those venues where the brickwork was exposed, a perfect setting for Australian Jez Watts’ brand of raw, close to the bone stand up. He revelled in his reputation for being “dirty”, verging on unacceptable and further reminded us that while we were there for comedy, he was at work, something he did with confidence. As he got into his stride, he confided that the title of his show, absolute zero, wasn’t because he was at rock bottom but was more to do with his state of indebtedness to his girlfriend, someone he revealed that he was going to propose to just as soon as he’s raised the money to pay her back. His prospective wife had in fact supplied the $1000 to furnish his act with the tech he used in his show,but he owed her a further $16000.
Despite this rather appealing revelation, this was a guy who took a somewhat mocking stance to life as he launched into his no-holds-barred reflections on everything from his own worries and concerns to his take on civilisation and the state of the human race. Which he compared to chickens in a George Orwell -esk take on the organisation of society. Nor did he hold back from confronting the audience in a not altogether comfortable way. But it’s up to you whether you take offence, or take comfort in the thought that the crudest japes are working hard for us in the name of liberty and freedom of speech, which is after all is the crux of true democracy.
After the Mumble editor met John Michael flyering for his show in Edinburgh, I got the call to go down to Bar Bados and review him. I’m very glad he did so, for John has transported audience participation to a whole new level, which is always quite a scary prospect for an audience member. Perhaps it was the crazy apron and pants costume, or his announcement of the gay boyfriend that he’d found that made him seem quite unthreatening and he had no difficulty pulling members of the audience up on stage with him to perform various tasks under his direction. In the end at one point there were three people onstage, thus cleverly changing the dynamic of a solo show into an ensemble piece.
The concept of the show stemmed from the tragic loss of his beloved mother, together with the experience of being dumped by a long-time boyfriend. His demeanour was nothing short of manic as he hilariously set about getting us to perform characters from his life, and ran up and down the small aisle to make us stamp our feet and yell. At other moments he would just stare into the audience seeking out eye contact which it was impossible to resist.
John’s idea was that he would bring his mother back to life in a meatball séance where, with the help of selected audience members, he would actually cook the sizzling meatballs and use them as a ouija board to bring her back, while the rest of the audience would supply the screaming sound effects. He went for it nonstop from beginning to end, becoming more and more excitable at the thought of having his mother back again, and all the while coming out with cute jokes about her and the ex whenever there was any hint of sadness.
This performer turned the venue into his own playground, dotting around here and there, one moment standing on the windowsill the next perching on the back of a chair. I would say he had us eating out of his hand as he took his deranged idea and ran with it all the way to the point of bringing his mom back to life. This show seemed crazy and out of control, but was in fact a masterful piece of theatre, skilfully put together and orchestrated by this American who touchingly wanted nothing more than to celebrate his mother’s life. An unexpected gem not soon forgotten.
Laughing Horse @ City Cafe – Las Vegas Aug 21-25 (22:30)
Material: Delivery: Laughs: Room:
Bad Boys is the most misleading title at the Fringe. For a start, they consist of a young man & young woman – Jamie D’Souza and Chelsea Birkby. Secondly, both their comedy & general demeanors are, in fact, rather good. There is a loose vote at the end to decided which of the two, plus a random punter, are the baddest boy in the room, but its rather meaningless really as a concept. Still, everyone at the Fringe needs a theme, right? So to the comedy itself. Two things contribute to coaxing the laugh-receptors of the brain into chortles, which help Bad Boys take off. The first is the time, 22.30, perfect for those about to go out on the lash, or are winding their lash up, with each demographic glaikit & glowing with life. The second is the disco-lights, his random radiancies combine with the lovely warmth both comedians project, inducing the feeling of being at an early 90s rave on some very happy drugs.
Chelsea introduces things – she’s a natural MC – with Jamie’s swirling carousel of comedy following soon after. His material was nice & mixed, as was his race (as is mine) & I loved his phrase, on bemoaning his girlfriend giving him extremely short notice he was about to meet her parents – ‘once you go brown, you let your dad down.’ Classic. After 21 days reviewing in a row, my mental turbines had reached a curious state, being in a higher state of exhaustion. My brain was still alert however, like a sniper under a blanket, & I began to listen to the laughter which Jamie created. It felt like being at a Grand Prix, with the rise & fall sounding very much like a nneeee-ooooowwww between each rapid-paced, crowd-pleasing gag. Continuing the car motif, about half-way through his set he gave out a flurry of jokes which felt like we were going through the gears, with each eruption of laughter increasing in energy & volume.
Chelsea was next, her cloudlike tresses tumbling through the mists, & despite not being as natural a wit as Jamie, nor as polished, she is just a cute-puppy’s worth of cleverness & class. ‘Nobody likes Mumford & Sons if they don’t like sex,’ she declares, with the coital connexion forming a large part of her set. Her bipolarism pops up, the hypermania of which she compares to the imbibing of buckfast. She is more interactive than Jamie, while her youth is important – Chelsea is still quite excited about the world & as a 43-year old seeing it through her eyes again, she is quite revitalizing. Together, she & Jamie form a happening team, who I guarantee anybody at the Fringe will enjoy.
After seeing Will Rowland in a sketch show called Crizards last year, I thought I’d bob along to his debut full show at Bar Bados. I like his dreamcatcher presence in a room. Unfortunately on the day I went a pipe had burst or something & the whole venue had been shut down. Not to be deterred, I made my way back the next lunchtime & settled myself before him. It was a great start, with Will spraying fabreeze into the room via a strategically-placed fan to counteract any smells from the previous day’s sewage.
So to Cocoon, Will’s aptly-titled name for his debut. I say apt, because Will is very much a work in progress, not quite hatched but definitively alive & throbbing with energy. He has a rather blase approach to his set, an easy-going drollness that spends half his time, at least in the early stages, looking down on his own role as a performer from a punter’s point of view. A comedian’s comedian.
Will is a beamer, he’s always on the edge of smiling & I enjoy comedians who laugh at their own jokes in the unpretentious manner. As we watch him at work, his face is an enthrallingly rolling watch, its like a tractor beam that keeps pulling you in & focused on the comedy. He is also the least invidious comedian I have ever seen. The set he presents is a wee tour de force around his family; dad’s there, mum pops up & I’d love to meet his granny, who refuses to laugh at his jokes or approve of his career choice. I’d tell her, ‘look love, be proud, the guy’s good!’
The one problem with Will is that if you lose your own focus for a second, you step off his train & its difficult to get back on again. He just needs to learn how to work a room better, tho’ to be honest the Bar Bados experience is tricky, with him having to compete with two nosiy shows on each side of him, including a very noisy bunch of Icelanders hunting for trolls (or something). I would prefer to have seen Will in a different room where I could enjoy the ride undisturbed from start to finish & allow his slick cerebrality to infest my laughter-spheres.
The first Monday of the last week of The Fringe is an odd time. As I zoomed up to The Stand, the streets were significantly less packed than in the last 2 ½ weeks and there was a distinct lack of queues outside of venues. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find a hodgepodge of demographics filling a solid 40 seats when Steve N Allen took to the stage. He opened by commenting on the fact that he was no longer bothering to wear the suit jacket that had accompanied his first couple of weeks of the run, and at points there was a sense that Fringe exhaustion had started to make its way into his performance, as well as his wardrobe choices.
The theme of his show, we were informed, was that in a world where you need to have a knowledge of trade deals to feel justified in conversing on politics, there might just be a way to be ‘Better Than’ this current sociological attitude of extremes. This was covered via a stream of anecdotes ranging from making the mortal cultural error of ordering a ‘Full English’ in a Scottish café, to the unfortunate results on his waistline of stockpiling food for Brexit. If this sounds like a bit of a stretch, well, yes, it was. Steve moved relentlessly from topic to topic with barely a pause for jokes to land. An excellent riff on warning labels for nut allergy sufferers, on a jar of ‘3Nut Peanut Butter’, was spoiled by him leaping straight into a section about the unwritten rules of when to steal a seat in a coffee shop. This may have been because the audience were such a mixed crowd, and he was anticipating better laughs from other sections of his material. Certainly, when the audience laughed, as they did with enough regularity to keep things from ever feeling flat, he worked the material perfectly.
I get this mix of feelings where I wish I could live like this all the time; waking up writing comedy, doing gigs, plugging shows on the radio, enjoying the most intense version of the job, but I also realise I wouldn’t last a week into September and if I don’t get a solid two days of sleep when I get home I may never recover. Read the full interview…
We were informed that one of his neat one-liners had made number 29 in The Telegraph’s 30 Best Jokes of The Fringe. It was when he went on extended, mildly obsessive, wonderings about individual topics that his material worked best though. His mathematical breakdown of group sex (complete with equations) was as good a piece of comedy as I have seen this year. I also found myself musing if I was the only person who had noticed he’d made the letters in the equation look like relevant body parts. A perfect combination of highbrow and lowbrow. When playing himself, characters from his home town of Mansfield, or ‘short people’ (Anyone under 6ft), his delivery was bang on, sending laughter bouncing out about the small room. However his ‘Better Than’ message became lost in a number of the sections, such as one 5-minute monologue in which he leapt from Big Data companies predicting your shopping habits, to eggs, Tesco Clubcards, Fat Prejudice, Airlines, and Body Mass Index. A lack of recaps, or pauses for the audience to digest where his train-of-thought was taking them, meant that a few of these flights of fancy became lost.
It was enlightening to have a slightly confused heckler in the room. Allen handled this wonderfully, to the degree that the guilty party, and his constantly shushing partner, ended up feeling like a welcome part of the act. While working the audience work, his formal delivery style slipped and ‘the real Steve N Allen’ took over, wonderfully confusing a West Lothian accent for Californian and mining a number of laughs and call-backs from each impromptu interaction. On the weight of most of his material, his confident improvising, and the response from the crowd at the end – which had him leaving the stage to applause that lasted after he had left the room – I’d heartily recommend him as a night-out for punters. Hopefully he’ll be performing with more care and energy to the end of his run, and hitting his stride again to finish The Fringe in top gear. Either that, or get the suit jacket back on.
With their ‘Le Bureau de Strange,’
The Establishment are blowing away the Fringe
Hello Dan, first things first, where are you both from & where are you both at now, geographically speaking? Dan: I was born and grew up mainly in London. Right now, at the time of writing this, I am in Margate doing a show at Dreamland, a vintage theme park, and we’ve been given free reign on the rides, perks of the job! Wish the nine-year-old me could be here to see it! Neil is a country boy from somewhere in Sussex, but we both live in London.
Hello Neil, how did you get into comedy? Neil: I discovered comedy to survive the school bullies. If I clowned around and acted like the lowest level fool then I seemed to avoid getting a pummelling in the playground. However this eventually backfired as the bullies would deliberately pick on me so that I would make them laugh. I first performed comedy on stage whilst attending a school just for boys, the only time we ever mixed with the opposite sex was once a year when we joined forces with an all-girls school to put on a show at the local theatre, so I basically got into performing comedy to meet girls. Later on, I went to a Drama School to study to be a ‘proper’ actor, as I was told I would make a great Hamlet. When I attempted one of the famous Shakespearean scenes, I couldn’t find a prop dagger I needed, so I improvised by using a plastic spoon instead, which was the closest thing I could find from the school canteen. When I pulled out the plastic spoon during a very dramatic scene everyone just laughed, so I basically got into performing comedy professionally, because I was a shit actor.
When did you first realise you were funny? Dan: I think I’ve always used humour to diffuse situations, avoid discomfort and ease tension, but most importantly just to have a good laugh. I was a bit of a piss-taker and liked messing around at school-taunting teachers and being a general pain in the arse. But I’m not sure I thought of myself as funny, I always hung out with kids I thought were much funnier than me.
What advice do you have for a comedy act making their debut at this year’s Fringe? Neil: Try not to take it too seriously, it’s meant to be funny, so if you can’t find fun in what you’re doing then neither will the audience, although saying that, it can be a challenge to find pleasure when all you have in the audience are two pensioners and a critic, based on personal experience. Also try not to drink too much, it’s very tempting to go wild every night as there are so many exciting people and things around, but performing hungover is rarely fun, again based on personal experience.
Can you tell us about your training? Dan: I went to an after-school acting club called Anna Schers in London, but I was always lacking in confidence. It was terrifying to get up and perform. So I didn’t for about fifteen years. Then I was writing and directing a friends comedy act and he said he thought I was quite funny and we should get up and do something together. His name was Guy Combes and collectively we were called Moonfish Rhumba and we made it to the finals of Hackney Empire and Amused Moose Competitions. So, thank you Guy for giving me a push! During this period I got a taste for performing comedy and started doing stand-up. Whilst on the circuit I met people who had done clown and theatre training in Paris with a supposedly scary genius of a man called Philippe Gaulier. It was very enlightening to find that comedic acting and clowning was a skill that could be developed. I spent some time in Paris with Philippe and sought out many other great teachers to find out as much as I could about this art form. Phillipe teaches the importance of having pleasure in performance… if you are not enjoying yourself how can you expect the audience to? This is a simple concept, but it can be difficult to achieve when night doing the same show 26 nights in a row. In ‘The Establishment: Le Bureau De Strange’ we try to keep it as fresh and unpredictable for ourselves, so that we have as much fun as possible.
You’ve got three famous comedy double-acts (dead or alive) coming round for dinner. Who would they be & what would you cook; starters, mains & dessert? Neil: Well firstly I’d be a little annoyed that I’ve got to cook for six guests rather than just three, so I think some kind of soup to start, a stew for mains and rice pudding to finish, all of which can be put into three big bowls and just slopped out onto the plates. I guess it would be rude not to invite Morcambe and Wise, as they were always on the TV when I was growing up, so defined what a good comedy double act is for me. I’d like to invite Little and Large, as I’d be interested to know what they’ve been up to since the eighties, but mainly because I think they would be fine with me making jokes on how one is too fat and the other is a little short, which is generally considered a conversation faux pas at a dinner party. Finally, I’d invite the Moustache Brothers, who are a Burmese double act that I once met whilst travelling. One of them was imprisoned after pulling the short straw to tell a political joke criticising the government. After eventually being released from six years of hard labour they continued their double act, despite being told not to. I feel this kind of commitment to comedy deserves a free three course meal.
What does your perfect Sunday afternoon look like? Dan: In my fantasy life I would be having a Sunday roast with my friends who are all the world’s most important artists, intellectuals and world leaders. But in reality I’m most happy doing virtually nothing, just chilling, maybe reading a book or watching Netflix.
You two are pretty hilarious together on-stage… are you the same off it? Neil: Well thank you, that’s very kind. I think so, we try not to take life too seriously on stage or off it… we look to find humour in many things. We generally clown around a lot, except for when we’re being interviewed, which we take very seriously and without humour, like now for example. It seems much easier to be funny off stage when you’re in a double act. If you’re a solo act,you’renormally just sat in the corner on your own waiting to go on, wondering if anybody finds you funny or indeed even likes you. With a double act you’ve at least got the other person to find you funny and watch your back.
You’re bringing a show to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe; can you tell us about it? Neil: This is our third show as The Establishment at the Ed Fringe, which so far this year has had sold out performances at the Leicester Comedy Festival, Brighton Fringe, Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Adelaide Fringe, where it won the Weekly Award for Best Comedy. The Establishment are Godfrey and Cecil, two charming ultra-privileged chaps who take the audience on an anarchic rollercoaster of physical comedy and quick-fired wit. The show is very British and very stupid.
Where, when & why were The Establishment formed? Dan: Me and Neil did a show together called Pekka and Strangebone in Edinburgh in 2013 and, during this time we came up with the idea for the act. The idea was basically just two gents in bowlers saying ‘I know where I’m going’. Pretty basic, but that’s how we work, we have a small idea then we try it out to see if it has legs. Eventually we gota chance to do it and we haven’t looked back since.
What are the creative processes behind writing material for the Establishment? Neil: This is Top Secret, so I can’t really tell you. It’s a bit like asking Colonel Sanders for his delicious eleven herb and spice recipe, which in a way is a similar process to how we make a show. We throw a load of jokes and visual gags in at a rehearsal, then deep fry it in front of an audience, changing things as we go, until everything is crisp and lovely. I’m not quite sure why I’ve decided to compare our creative process to making KFC, I think maybe I’m just hungry right now.