Category Archives: Comedy

Sweeney Todd, Adelphi Theatre

Robert Burt as Pirelli and Michael Ball as Sweeney Todd

Robert Burt as Pirelli and Michael Ball as Sweeney Todd

All the people I am related to, and quite a few more people besides, have heard more than they ever need to about how much I didn’t like Tim Burton’s film of Sweeney Todd. It wasn’t so much that I thought it was awful as that I had such high hopes for it, for which I have only myself to blame, given that I already knew that I don’t like Tim Burton (because all his films are ugly).

But I think I thought that Stephen Sondheim would save the day, and so I eagerly trotted along to the Ritzy in Brixton by myself one weekday afternoon, fully armed with popcorn and a giant bucket of Coke – this was back in the days when the Ritzy’s soft drinks machines used to sometimes work – and settled in ready to be delighted. And so, of course, I wasn’t. I have always maintained that it was because none of the actors could sing, but actually I think it was just the drab greyness of the thing. And also that none of the actors could sing.

Most of the actors in the current London production can sing. In fact, Michael Ball’s voice almost feels wasted in the role of Sweeney, because he rarely gets to sing with anything like his full voice. But you can hear the depth and the richness of his tenor even when he’s holding it right back to barely a whisper, and I’d rather have a lead with too much voice than too little, Johnny Depp.

What else is good? Ball as Sweeney and Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett are both convincingly bedraggled and raddled by a life in the gutter (again, in contrast to the film), and Imelda Staunton carries her scenes with a wit and a warmth that lightens the whole production (which is mostly performed in the dark). Everyone else is as good as they need to be, although I found Lucy May Barker’s Johanna a teeny bit shrieky, but that sort of works in the context of the role.

The staging is adequate, which is to say it does what it needs to, but it only made me want to clap my hands once (I’m not telling you when, it’s better as a surprise), and although it was authentically gloomy and forbidding, with its multi-tiered scenery and the Greek chorus of onlookers periodically disappearing into the shadows, that was rather at odds with the overall feel of the piece, which is a jaunty sort of black comedy with lyrical moments that call to mind Flanders and Swann (“the trouble with a poet/is how do you know it/is deceased?/Try the priest!“) rather than Burke and Hare.

This is a problem with the whole show, though, and it makes me realise that part of what I hated about the Burton film isn’t his fault at all, because actually, how do you stage a Victorian horror story when (some of) the lyrics are so upbeat and silly? As a farce? I’d like to see someone try it, but I don’t know that it would work any better. The problem is that the songs don’t match the story.

That said, I don’t want you to think that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. I just wish it had either looked a little less doomy, or that it had been performed with a little more grimness of purpose (which is not a suggestion I have ever found myself making before). But there’s lots to like, and the music is of course fantastic (even though you can’t hum it afterwards, but I think that’s OK as long as you’re prepared for it), and Patrick Stewart was sitting two rows in front of me and he (along with everyone else) gave it a standing ovation, and if Patrick Stewart’s recommendation isn’t enough for you then you are being too fussy by half.

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Posted by on June 19, 2012 in Comedy, Opera, Theatre


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The 39 Steps, Criterion Theatre

The 39 Steps

Photo by Tristram Kenton

I first saw this play about six years ago, and when I was offered a pair of tickets last week I realised I had forgotten almost everything about it, which is something I often do with light comedy. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it; just that the memories of it seem to fade, probably because there is no connection with any kind of real emotion, so there’s nothing for it to get snagged on in my brain. For example, I know I enjoyed Graham Linehan’s adaptation of The Ladykillers, but by the time I tried to write about it a few days after seeing it I realised most of it had already faded from my mind. (Although there was a really good bit where Peter Capaldi, playing Alec Guinness, threw a dead body out of a window. It was funnier than it sounds.)

Part of the problem with The Ladykillers was that I was already fairly well-acquainted with both the Ealing original and the Coen brothers’ remake, so The 39 Steps already has the advantage because I have never read the book or seen any of the (four!) film versions. Which means I can confidently assert that this version of The 39 Steps is absolutely the silliest thing I’ve ever seen on the West End stage, which is not to say anything against it. As you will know if you’ve read any of the publicity, the whole thing is done with four actors; one of whom plays the lead, with the others changing accents and costumes in super-quick time (sometimes on stage) to play all of the rest of the characters. What you might not know, and I didn’t until the beloved mentioned it, is that it uses more or less exactly the story and dialogue of the Hitchcock film, but hammed up into a festival of ridiculousness that you’d have to be a very harsh person not to enjoy.

The physical comedy, and minimal but ingenious staging, is at the heart of what makes the play work as a farce rather than a thriller – and the thriller’s plot is so preposterous that it probably works better when you don’t have to inspect its logic too closely and can just enjoy the laughs. The actors all throw themselves into the silliness with gusto (as, incidentally, do most of the audience: it is one of those plays where you have to grit your teeth and ignore the hooting overlaughters).

Another excellent reason to go is the beautiful interior of the Criterion Theatre. The decor looks genuinely 1930s (I have no idea whether or not it is), and the crowning glory is a bar decorated with backlit stained glass, whose unexpected opulence and utter emptiness, thanks to its being hidden away around a corner you wouldn’t know was there, make it look exactly like a set from The Shining. So if the hooting overlaughers really get to you, you know where to escape to.

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Posted by on May 30, 2012 in Comedy, Theatre


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Hay Fever, Noël Coward Theatre

Lindsay Duncan and Jeremy Northam in Hay Fever at the Noël Coward Theatre

Hay Fever is the sort of piece which it’s pointless to try to update: you have to play it straight down the middle or not at all. This production, with its solidly middleweight cast, almost plays it too straight; burdening the lines with such solemnity that the jokes get slightly swallowed up at times. But although I watched it thinking “this is really painfully overdone”, twelve hours’ distance has given it a rosy haze in my memory and I think I must have quite enjoyed it after all.

The set-up is very slight, and the fact that it takes fully half an hour to establish it is a problem. The whole play, in fact, sprawls rather, and could do with being shorter and tighter. There are long scenes played out without any laughs at all, such as the encounter between the “perfectly sweet flapper” Jackie Coryton and the “diplomatist” Richard Greatham which is a sustained wince of awkward small talk and is exactly as interesting as that sounds, and you can’t help wishing they’d got it out of the way offstage, since they are supposed to have arrived together.

The conceit at the heart of the play is the notion that the family of recently retired actress Judith Bliss are happy to play up to her need for drama at all times. So we ought to be able to forgive the overblown Acting as part of the comedy, except that mostly, it’s not very funny. There are some very funny lines, but in this version they are delivered so vigorously that the humour is snuffed out before it has a chance to breathe. And if the Bliss family’s penchant for histrionics is to surprise us (and it can’t hope to make us laugh if it doesn’t), it needs to be balanced with some lightness, some quietness, some space. But there is none: it’s just three acts of shouting.

So why did I enjoy it? Well, it is funny, and some of the cast are excellent: I thought Kevin R McNally as David Bliss, Amy Morgan as Jackie Coryton, Jeremy Northam as Richard Greatham and Jenny Galloway as Clara, the long-suffering theatrical-dresser-turned-housekeeper, were all very good, and did bring some of that much-needed quietness. Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Freddie Fox (don’t they sound like Coward characters in their own right?), as siblings Sorel and Simon Bliss, were very good when they were playing up to their mother. And Lindsay Duncan was good as Judith Bliss during the set-pieces, but I couldn’t help wishing that she would calm down just a notch in between times. It all felt a bit relentless.

However, the whole thing is carried off with great charm and good humour, which is what I would expect and hope for from a Noël Coward revival, and I think I am being overly mean because it was almost very good indeed, and I wouldn’t want you not to go on the basis of my review, because it put me and the rest of the audience in a good mood, which is the main thing you need from a comedy, isn’t it?

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Posted by on April 12, 2012 in Comedy, Theatre


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Matilda The Musical, Cambridge Theatre

<Pokes keyboard>

Is this thing on…?

<Blows dust off screen>

…ah, there you are. Good. Yes, it’s been a little while since any reviews appeared here, but that’s because it’s been a little while since I’ve been to the theatre. What can I say? Send me tickets to things and I’ll write about them.

In the meantime I can promise to write a review at least once a year, because once a year I take my god-daughter to a show as part of her Christmas present, and this year that show was Matilda, which happily has just opened in the West End. We actually went en famille, because we decided that even the younger brother might enjoy it, which he duly did. I think it would be hard to find a demographic to whom it wouldn’t appeal, because – like all of Roald Dahl’s children’s books – the story is dark and funny and exciting, but Tim Minchin’s songs are so big-hearted and good-natured that you can’t help but smile all the way through them.

Whether for reasons of privacy or nerves or something else, the website doesn’t show pictures of the children, so I’m not entirely sure which Matilda we saw, but she was very good – not at all stage schooly, which is quite often a problem with children in musicals – and with a sense of physical comedy that I’ve rarely seen in an adult, let alone in an eleven-year-old (probably). Carrying a show this bombastic and exuberant is a big task, but she pulled it off with relish and was lovely to watch throughout.

The other star of the show is Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull. In the book, and in the 1996 Danny Devito film (which is excellent, and if you haven’t seen it you should rent it now), Miss Trunchbull is properly, unrelentingly, terrifying. For the musical version, someone has realised that characters in musicals can either sing or be scary (would Oliver Reed have made such an intimidating Bill Sykes if he’d bellowed out “My Name” in the film?), and sensibly opted for the former. Carvel’s physical performance is unique and mesmerising and extraordinary, but it’s not frightening. Which is fine: apart from anything else, there are quite a lot of children in the audience, and the tickets are very expensive, so you don’t want them hiding under their seats for half of the show.

Paul Kaye and Josie Walker are also excellent as Matilda’s parents in what is a true ensemble piece, some of the highlights coming in the big musical numbers which don’t have a great deal to do with the plot, but which jolly the thing along and provide the sorts of thrills you need when you take children to the theatre. My only slight problem was that in places the lyrics weren’t quite audible, because they were fast and clever and lots of people were singing at once. It’s a problem that I also sometimes have with Sondheim, and if you’re going to be compared to a songwriter, it might as well be him, so it’s not a real gripe. Tim Minchin is above all a happy comedian (there aren’t many, although I got into a fight on the internet when I said that recently), and that shines through in his songs, which are sweet and funny and heartwarming.

It’s not often that a new musical comes along that seems to be everything a musical should be – Wicked is the closest thing we’ve had recently, but I’ve never been quite able to fall in love with Wicked. I fell in love with Matilda the minute it started, and if you sent me a ticket I’d go and see it again tomorrow.

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Posted by on January 19, 2012 in Comedy, Music, Theatre


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Doug Stanhope, Leicester Square Theatre

Before we begin, a caveat: I watched this show under the influence of strong painkillers, which may have rendered it more rainbow-tinted than it was in reality. I will use this as my defence if anyone goes to see Doug Stanhope on the basis of my review and comes away offended or without a smile on their face.

I didn’t know much about Doug Stanhope before I went to see him: I had seen him in a couple of segments on one of Charlie Brooker’s TV shows and liked what I saw, but the reviews on the Leicester Square Theatre website were so fawningly positive that I suspected they had been blackmailed out of the critics, and I had variously heard him described as “controversial”, “caustic” and “abrasive” – all words that sometimes mean thought-provoking and sometimes mean nasty, and often mean something in between.

Well, it was a bit of both, but it was more thought-provoking than it was nasty, and mainly what it was was funny. This was one of those gigs where you start laughing at the beginning, and don’t stop until half an hour after you’ve left the theatre. Stanhope is a terrific wordsmith, pouring out a relentless stream of brilliantly-crafted invective at a rate that seems almost impossible, then slowing down when you least expect it and giving the audience a chance to get their collective breath back before abruptly beginning a fresh attack. It went so fast (and I was on such powerful drugs) that I want to go back and see it all again and try to retain more of it this time around, which is something I never usually feel about stand-up shows. Most jokes are best only told once.

This run is over now, but if you missed it, keep an eye out for a return visit to London, because the reviews were right: Doug Stanhope is really, really good. (Probably.)

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Posted by on September 13, 2010 in Comedy


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Amadeus Martin, Sheephaven Bay

I saw quite a lot of comedy at the Camden Fringe this year, as long as you’re willing to expand the usually accepted limits of the word “comedy”. There was the brave but ultimately doomed stand-up whose audience consisted of me, two venue staff and his agent; the musical where the cast hadn’t learned the songs and had to sightread them off the score; the act who seemed very earnest and likeable, but who didn’t appear to have any jokes in his set. Fringe comedy, I concluded, is a hit-and-miss affair.

But Amadeus Martin is a hit. As soon as he appeared I realised I had seen him a few months ago at the Comedy Pub. This show was substantially the same as that one, but it’s a good one so I laughed all over again. He’s very quick and very professional, with an assured manner which puts the audience – even an uncomfortably small one, as this was – at ease immediately. The problem with being part of a tiny audience is that the pressure to laugh, and to laugh visibly, can stop you from having any fun at all. As a performer the trick to stop this from happening is not to kidnap punters and force them to be in your audience, although I suppose that would help, but to go up there and deliver your routine as though there are six hundred people watching, and not six.  Because he wasn’t uncomfortable, neither were we, and it was one of the most confident and competent shows I’ve seen this year.

It’s also funny. He doesn’t break new comedic ground, but he delivers good lines with a winning smile and moves effortlessly between scripted material and jokey interaction with the audience. My only criticism is that he needs to update his act slightly: you can’t have a 5-week old baby in May and still have a 5-week-old baby in August, mister. That aside, this was thoroughly enjoyable, and frankly something of a relief after some of the acts I’ve seen this month. And he managed what every comic should do and most don’t: a properly brilliant call-back at the end, which I shan’t spoil. For that alone he wins my vote.

I’d also like to mention the Sheephaven Bay, a backstreet pub which is much nicer than anywhere else in Camden and to which I would go back even if there weren’t any comedy on. Seek it out next time you’re in NW1.

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Posted by on August 31, 2010 in Comedy


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Window Lickin’ Good, Camden Head

This was the first in a series of shows I’m going to see at the Camden Fringe this year, and it’s billed in the programme as “a truly adult, late-night sketch show”. Actually it’s on at 7.15pm, but since the location is the sweaty upstairs room of a Camden pub it’s unlikely that there are children watching. In any case, this show is much sweeter and lighter than that makes it sound: there is quite a lot of swearing, and some jokes about sex, but it’s basically an hour of straightforward old-fashioned sketch comedy, with jokes that manage to be both traditional and new.

Of the performers, Rosalind Blessed stands out as the most polished and also the most engaging, but all three of them are good –  and very well-rehearsed: the only things that went wrong (a fluffed line, a recalcitrant superhero costume) were the kinds of things that can’t really be foreseen, and which are easily forgiven when (a) it’s the first night of a fringe show in the sweaty upstairs room of a Camden pub and (b) they are handled with wit and charm.

One sketch, starring the male two-thirds of the team, could have been lifted straight from A Bit Of Fry And Laurie, and I mean that as a compliment. The writing is quick and clever, the staging exactly right for the format, the music thoughtfully chosen and the performances perfectly balanced between professionally distant and chummily intimate (we are, after all, mere feet away from the “stage”, and afterwards everyone goes downstairs and has a drink at the same bar).

A couple of sketches didn’t quite hit the mark, but overall the quality was at least as high as on some sketch shows that make it all the way to TV, and significantly higher than on <COUGH> Mitchell and Webb <COUGH> others.

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Posted by on August 4, 2010 in Comedy


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