Spontaneous Potter - The Frog And Bucket, Manchester.

Manchester's Frog And Bucket is a rather famous comedy club sitting inauspiciously on the corner or Oldham Street and the inner ring road, which has seen some of Britain's foremost comedians kick-start their careers here. This being my first visit to the club and not really knowing what to expect, I was rather taken aback, not realising that the place was table-seating only and these tables were squashed into a downstairs area and extended upstairs balcony, and a postage-stamp-sized stage for the performance. Being used to visiting theatres and concerts it also took me a little while to get used to the fact that food and drinks were being served at the table with two bars also open for patrons throughout. It is also certainly true that certain seats afford a better view of the stage than others, and when the venue is fully booked, as indeed it was this evening, it can also be quite hot and claustrophobic.

The packed venue however was a good indication that what we were about to witness was indeed a hugely clever and enjoyable event. These people, The Spontaneous Players, an Edinburgh-based improvised comedy troupe, had managed to entice a lot of people to the venue who had, like me, not visited before, coming to see and hear some serious lampooning of one of the most famous and successful films, novels etc of the past decade - Harry Potter. 

Fans of Harry Potter obviously come in all shapes, sizes and ages. I had, quite mistakenly thought that such a story would appeal only to the tween and teen age groups, but judging by this evening's audience, an over 18s only event, the fan base is much wider, with many of the audience coming along in Potter-related costumes.

The troupe, Paul, Eric, Sam and Will (I think!) between them (and a pianist underscoring majority of the acting with improvised mood music) were excellent. happily there has been over the past few years a resurgence in the popularity of improvised comedy. The unequalled and superb television programme that was 'Whose Line Is It Anyway' did much to popularise this art-form, but then it seemed to enter a slump, and so it is lovely to see so many impro companies springing into prominence now.

Starting at 8:00pm the troupe had three 45 minute spots (or thereabouts) with intervals in between. This meant that the event didn't really finish until around 11pm which was too late for a theatrical event, especially on a week night. This didn't seem to faze either performer or audience member however, but the evening did get more raucous as it progressed as the average alcohol intake per person increased too.

The troupe however were used to such audiences and they continues to delight right until the last cleverly thought-out line was delivered tying up (almost) all of the loose ends in their improvised romp. The first part of the evening was given over to short sketches from audience suggestions. The audience were invited to write 'titles' of unpublished Potter 'fan fiction' novels on a paper and put them into the Sorting Hat. These suggestions were then taken out one by one, and after each one was read out, they were instantly performed in the form of a short comedy sketch. Suggestions included 'Draco Hits On Malfoy', 'Harry And Draco Kissing Scene', 'Ron And Hermoine Become Rappers', and 'Snape Teaches Sex Education'.

Of course it helps enormously if you are able to understand and know the characters that are being caricatured, but even if you don't (as I didn't with all of them) you are still able to marvel at the skill and ability of these four as they work from each other with accustomed ease. One problem I did find though was that because there were only four performers and the cast of the Potter novels is vast, it meant that they were called upon to play many different characters, sometimes, different actors playing the same character in the same sketch, which was very difficult for a non-Potter-phile to keep up with!

The second and third sections of the evening were an extended story, again taking a suggestion from the ones in the sorting hat, but this time making it a feature length episode. In part one they created many loose ends and red herrings, which in part two after the second interval they managed to bring together somehow. A lot of conflabbing haven taken place in that interval between the cast in order to bring the show to a conclusion.    

The Spontaneous Players are indeed a very experienced and clever troupe who worked together superbly, and despite the confines and constricts of the venue, they managed well and managed to make a lot of Potter fans very happy indeed, all of us leaving with huge grins on our faces laughing at the events of the evening.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 30/5/18 

Joseph Morpurgo: Hammerhead - The Deaf Institute, Manchester.

Joseph Morpurgo’s 2017 hit Edinburgh Fringe show had passed me by when I was at the festival. I had been there in the hope of finding a quirky, oddball comic whose cult status had not yet taken root and I was hoping to avoid comedians offering wry observations on marriage, commuting and parenting. I live with the regret of hearing about Johnny Vegas in his pottery stage and never bothering to see him at the peak of his powers. So as I trawled Edinburgh watching soul destroying witless comedians, somewhere Morpurgo was delivering his multi-media madness to audiences in the know, and yet again, I’d missed the bandwagon.

When I arrived at the excellent Deaf Institute for an intimate gig this evening, I was still not aware of what I’d been missing out on. But excited chatter of previous shows from an audience that seemed uncannily similar in age, appearance and style to one another suggested that I needed get up to speed fast. This was an audience of converts and this was to be no ordinary comedy show. The screen acting as the backdrop read “The End” in blood red font and a production assistant was courteously enlisting the help of audience members with a clipboard and a microphone, which I feared was for audience interaction. I should have done my homework.

The show starts with a high concept exposition: We are here for a post-performance Q&A with actor, choreographer, composer and director Joseph Morpurgo (his caricature by the same name) who, we are informed by video montage, has just taken the curtain call for his 9hr adaptation of Frankenstein in which he played 85 characters, 7 breeds of livestock, performed in 12 languages and subjected us to two and a half hours of juggling. As he enters the enlisted audience members present flowers, banners and an assortment of scripted questions. This is not audience participation as cringe-inducing mockery, but as generous writing that allows the audience to get the laughs, the willing participants are part of the act and as active a character as Morpurgo’s protagonist. As the show continues, it becomes clear that this Q&A is not what “Joseph Morpurgo” the deluded artiste and charlatan, had wanted from the evening. Instead of adulation, he gets distracted questions, criticism and a wholly unhinged audience Q&A, which reveals the cracks in his enormous ego. As the evening unravels, the mental strain brought about by financial problems and the exhausting schedule of the work are laid bare. Morpurgo’s creation is lonely, tired, failing, broke and broken, so he becomes increasingly combative with the audience. The character’s breakdown is actually hindering his attempts to explore the production of Frankenstein. This is where the high-concept comedy is at its most absurd; Morpurgo the character has performed as “The concept of wet”, electrocuted an usher in rehearsal, re-drafted the script through drug binges and performed an hour and a half sleeping scene.

Joseph Morpurgo the real person, has created an excellent character, against a brilliantly bizarre set-up, but what sets this apart is the multi-media used in the show to create a broader palette of visual gags (with an astonishing hit rate), audio cues and even song and dance numbers. The directions in which this show travels are navigated to perfection through these media-clips, cues, contrivances and call-backs.

Joseph Morpurgo’s singular comedy style has all the hallmarks of cult-status, with the crowd calling out on cue like gleeful children at a pantomime, whilst the onstage antics are unpredictable, unique and seem to exist in a parallel universe. I left this show absolutely thrilled to have caught a wholly original comic voice and thinking to myself, “This is it. This is what you’ve been looking for!”

Reviewer - Benjamin Hassouna-Smith
on - 24/5/18

Jack Barry: High Treason - The Frog And Bucket, Manchester.

The Frog and Bucket in Manchester has been, for the last 20 years, the launching platform for many young comedians who have gone on to be huge stars, and so tonight I was very much looking forward to seeing Jack Barry – a man who has been tipped as 'the next big thing' since his appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe festival last year.

It was therefore a big surprise that when I arrived at the venue I counted only 18 people in the audience, which in a venue that packs in around 300 was very disappointing.

Barry was doing his own support slot, as seems to be a growing trend at the moment on the comedy circuit, with the first part of the night involving him interacting with the crowd and telling a few well-rehearsed stories about his own life experiences.  He talked about the show, High Treason, which he will perform in the second half of the evening – the subject matter being the legalisation of drugs in this country.  As you might imagine, the interactions with such a small crowd were a little awkward and although Barry did a valiant job in trying to create an atmosphere for the second half he was ultimately fighting a losing battle.

Being the current ‘face of McCoy’s crisps’ (as part of the golden crisp campaign) has led to some well-crafted comic material about himself, and in particular his stupidity at not negotiating a deal that involved him getting any free packets of crisps – as well as a trip to his local newsagent trying to negotiate his own personal discount based on his face being on every packet in the shop!!

After a short break Barry returns to perform the main show, something he first did in 2017 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has been touring since. There is a clothing change into his ‘weed Riddler’ suit as he refers to it – a green suit and tie combination with a pattern of marijuana leaves covering the entire outfit – and we are immediately led into the many legitimate arguments that he has for the legalisation of recreational drugs.

Barry is a self-confessed drug user but doesn’t come across as your stereotypical ‘pot-head’ – his delivery of several anecdotes of his own experiences is both assured and considered.  Whilst none of his arguments for the legalisation are new, he uses his own encounters to make some very interesting points – not least his time on work experience with the German Drug Squad!!

High Treason is a very well written show by Jack Barry but the performance tonight cannot have been his best work.  He is an excitable character and I can only imagine that this is taken to another level with a full house where can improvise and feed from the audience reactions – we did not see any of this at the Frog and Bucket tonight sadly.

This is Jack’s first appearance in Manchester as a stand up and I sincerely hope that this experience does not stop him from returning in the future and we will be able see the real Jack Barry in action.

Reviewer – John Fish
on - 20/5/18

Count Arthur Strong - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Count Arthur Strong is a very difficult man to distil for the purposes of a review. An enigmatic figure with a varied and lengthy career in the entertainment industry, or perhaps just a deluded fantasist. He is at once pompous and base, quoting Shakespeare whilst attempting a ventriloquist act, espousing decorum and etiquette whilst recounting a muddled tale of a toilet cubicle, and a raconteur in a perpetual haze of confusion and anger. That terrible attempt to sum him up doesn’t get better with attempts at comparison “delivery like Johnny Vegas’s mad uncle”, “wordplay like Porky Pig”, “a more agitated John Shuttleworth” and “a physical resemblance to Harry Worth” were all interval analogies my learned friend and I offered.

What we do know is that Count Arthur Strong is the comic creation of Steve Delaney, who first channelled the ex-variety entertainer in his last year of drama school, before resurrecting him for an Edinburgh Festival Fringe show in 1993 and remaining a cult hit there for years. He has appeared in more than 50 episodes of his Radio 4 series and even had 3 series of a sit-com. With so many incarnations, it was no wonder he drew such a large and diverse crowd in The Lowry’s main ‘Lyric Theatre’.

Many stand up comedy shows are framed by a theme, upon which the stand-up will return to as a call-back at the end, to conveniently add a poignancy to the set, or provide an answer to a question that we hadn’t really asked. This show on the other hand, has very little by way of theme or subject. Count Arthur’s opening set reveals his inability to focus on anything, nor differentiate between real and fantasy, which actually is a strength of the show, he lurches from subject to subject with such brilliant turning points there are often laughs of realisation long after the path has been forged and we notice that we’re not returning to the original point Count Arthur was intent on making. One standout moment is Arthur’s appallingly contrived segue into a ventriloquist act that is so abrupt and shambolic the laughs from the audience felt physically shaken from us. Even halfway through a Jackanory audition that Count Arthur subjects us to, it becomes clear that his befuddled dressing down of audience members has meant that he has forgotten the story he was reading. As Delaney holds us in that moment of silent dithering, we know it all before his character does. Another non-sequitur has derailed the Count’s train of thought.

The show is not a consistent success, with the set pieces often falling flat. A strange set up about The Last Supper and the ventriloquist act are amongst those that outstay their welcome. The most obviously strained moments come from a sub-Quatermass science-fiction parody starring Count Arthur in his apparent prime, which is split into three parts. One suspects that these video vignettes are actually timed to give Delaney a chance to power through a throat lozenge and receive a backstage sports massage mid-show, such is the demand of his character. On consideration, I also think that the set pieces are designed to give the audience a break from Count Arthur’s break-neck speed of segues, malapropisms and unprovoked outbursts, but they are a weak-spot nonetheless. 

It is Count Arthur we’re here to see and when he is holding court, he has us rapt and indeed wrapped up in his chaotic stream of consciousness, confusion and convolutions which provoke giggles throughout the evening.  Steve Delaney’s performance is so masterfully constructed that knockout punchlines even come in the form of a gesture, or the change in vocal pitch, which Count Arthur lurches between so erratically. This is character comedy at it’s most disciplined. Intricately written, expertly performed and insanely funny.

Reviewer - Benjamin Hassouna-Smith
on - 13/5/18


Matt Forde: A Show Hastily Re-written In Light Of Recent Events - Again! - Waterside, Sale.

Matt Forde, rising star of political satire, with his own TV show, Unspun, made a  stop at Sale's Waterside [formerly The Waterside Arts Centre] this evening as part of his current stand-up show.

His characteristic fast speech and quick repartee, slightly smug but amiable, chatty style, combined with his undeniable knowledge and love-hate affair with British politics and the world political stage in general, make him a very popular choice.

This evening, the 35 year old was in fine form, of course his stage act is peppered with far more expletives than his TV persona, but the genuine delight in doing what he does and his bonhomie are still present in abundance.

Naturally the topics on the agenda were Brexit, [Forde being a Remoaner], The Windrush scandal, Jeremy Corbin and anti-semitism, The Russians and poisons, and we finished the evening with America and Donald Trump. Although somehow the unexpected ad libs along the way were funnier since these came from a different place; not the prepared routine rolled out at each venue, but something that came as a spur of the moment idea. Noel and Liam Gallagher talking to each other, and deciding whether a man who left halfway through had gone for a Number 1 or 2 and to announce this upon his return!

Forde also has the ability of mimicry and his many and varied caricatures this evening ranged from Huw Edwards, Boris Johnson, Alex Salmond, Nigel Farage, David Davis, Gordon Brown, to of course, Donald Trump. Some with a better degree of success than others.

Tom Lehrer once said that political satire died when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize; well that was a long time ago - it's high time to bring it back, especially in our current political maelstrom, and there is no-one better equipped on the circuit right now for that job than Matt Forde And whether you agree with his politics or not, you cannot deny he is clever.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 2/5/18

Laugh Your TaP Off (2018) - The Bierkeller, Manchester.

The Arden's Theatre And Performance students' annual chance at a five-minute stand-up comedy spot this year was hosted at Manchester's Bierkeller, and saw 9 brave students take up the gauntlet and perform their first ever set in front of a live audience.

The Arden is a Manchester-based theatre school, now part of The Manchester College, and this event was presented by students on their degree course in Theatre And Performance (hence the 'TaP' in the title).

The mood convivial, made even more so by the capacious amounts of alcohol being drunk throughout the extended evening, and with each act introduced by professional comedian and compere, Che Burnley [who was by the way, my favourite compere the whole evening!] the atmosphere was made as perfect as it possibly could be for these nine nervous individuals to perform.

Unfortunately though, perhaps due to a lack of advertising, the audience was comprised entirely of fellow students, friends, tutors and family; and as heart-warming as that is to know that these people will support and follow you, it does give a very false impression on the response to the sets. It would have been far more nerve-wracking, but a fairer gauge, if these 9 had performed in front of an unbiased audience.

The ordeal was also softened by a 45 minute long mimed presentation to start the evening involving all the nine comedians. Actually a superb idea, and something I did not expect, and something which was far more within their comfort zones too, as it required them to act! Taking their inspiration from the silent cinema, and the physical funny men who dominated that era such as Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy these 9 performed a few short wordless sketches, thus becoming their own warm-up acts. An inspired idea which worked extremely well. My three favourite sketches in this section simply have to be The Pigeons, Titanic, and Chariots Of Fire in that order.

The last sketch however, a longer more extended sketch based on the Big Brother reality TV programme, was only funny to fellow Arden students and tutors. It was full of 'in jokes' and very Arden specific, and so, perhaps it was a blessing then that there were no members of the general public present this evening!

After a long interval of a very liberal 10 minutes, the stand-up started. and with Burnley very cleverly and seamlessly tying in to his opening gambit the false start and technical hitch which happened at the beginning of the presentation, this relaxed the nine - and us - even more.

The nine 'virgin' comedians taking this baptism of fun were all so very different in their styles and approaches; and considering that for most of them at least, this really was the first time they have stood in front of an audience as themselves, (rather than in character), they are all deserving of the highest of praise. I have been in the profession for more years than I care to remember, and have acted in a huge amount of productions, but I simply could never stand on stage and be 'me'. That would frighten the living daylights out of me.

Comedy is such a subjective beast that it would be both impossible and unfair if I were to try and deconstruct these routines. They ranged from the bizarre and avant-garde, through drag, to gossipy character rants, to observational comedy, word-play and puns. In fact, almost every kind of comedy you can imagine was represented somewhere this evening, and so it is perfectly obvious that certain styles will appeal to some more than others, and therefore I simply cannot be objective in my reviewing of them. What is both interesting and inspiring though is that the material written for these five minute spots was original and, in majority of cases (again at least for me), funny.

And yes, of course I do have a favourite, and that is simply because this comedienne hit my comedy nerve almost absolutely on the button. I am a huge fan of Tim Vine, Milton Jones, Gary Delaney and the like, and am always impressed by clever wordplay, puns, and language based humour. Therefore the slow, deliberate, and poker-faced questioning style of Gemma Childs was a sheer delight!

Of course this does in no way diminish the excellent performances of the other eight, it just simply means that they did not hit on my own personal comedy preferences. They were however assured, confident (although I realise one or two were acting nervously as part of their act), well thought through, and yes, very enjoyable.

It was rather like an Open Mic night, where you can sample a wide range of varying humorists with their own unique styles, and see things and laugh at things you would never have thought possible and maybe even learn something too along the way! My own personal award for the best tag-line though goes to Chloe Grantham-Evans. (again, a purely personal and subjective decision! - stand-up has to be!)

The seven other students taking their first tentative steps in stand-up comedy, and doing remarkably well at it too, were Sam Robson, Sonia Dew-Girdle, Leanne Mole, Keisha Anderson, Ryan Lea, Marcus Richardson, and drag act Shelby Fine. The evening ended with a short set from the dry, acidic style of 3rd year student already working the local comedy circuit, Frank MacDonald.

The event started at 7pm, finishing around 10:30pm, which made the whole evening extremely drawn out. It would have been far preferable had the actual performances all been given within the first 2 hours, and then left the rest of the evening to mooching, chatting and socialising. It was, that notwithstanding, a highly congenial and good-humoured (in both senses of the word) evening.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 26/4/18

Richard Herring: Oh Frig, I'm 50 - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

When Rob Newman and David Baddiel played Wembley Arena in 1993, one headline famously asked “Is comedy the new rock and roll?” and one needed only to look at radio 1’s ‘Fist of Fun’ to find their Brit pop counterparts. After ‘The Mary Whitehouse Experience’ had successfully moved to TV, Radio 1 found a new comedy show in ‘Fist of Fun’ as its successor, and with it, their new comedy double-act rockstars. For a short while in the mid 1990s, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring were cult heroes, at once uncomfortable with the lad-culture image they’d been saddled with (despite their obvious intellect), whilst also relishing in purile and infantile antics whenever they saw fit. By the end of the 1990s the pair had split and in doing so, their TV careers had all but ended.

Since then, Richard Herring has worked doggedly on his craft as a solo act, with 13 stand-up tours under his belt, a prolific podcasting career, many short lived writing gigs for comedy shows and a successful stint as a Metro columnist. Yet despite the years, the loyal following and the successful career, Herring remains as emotionally stunted as ever. In his latest show “Oh Frig I’m 50” he tackles the stark reality of a half century and whether or not, when shopping at his age, a ‘bag for life’ might really be just that. Having married and had two children in recent years, the audience find Mr Herring at peace with his self and relishing the minutiae of his domestic life, albeit with the self-awareness that he is too emotionally stunted to cope with it.

At their peak Stewart Lee and Richard Herring were acerbic commentators masquerading as university freshers and it is Herring’s modus operandi to retain the pubescent ramblings and disarming self-deprecation of that early persona to strike at a number of personal topics. His routines on his lack of sexual prowess are particularly enjoyable, and so too is his material about his misguided sexual fantasies. What marks Richard Herring out as a master of his work is the high-wire walk he performs when discussing sex. In the hands of lesser comedians, his subjects, stories and self-confessions would come across as sexist and laddy (If I recounted material to you here, I’d never be trusted with any reviews again and would definitely offend), but his persona is so skilfully constructed to identify his self as the pathetic one, the failed man-child, that we know exactly where the joke is aimed. We are safe, and for the entire show, every jaw-dropping punchline or revelation is to his own detriment, and those innocent bystanders he has dragged into his sordid mind escape with their dignity intact.  

The shambolic and shabby character on stage fools no one, Richard Herring is still sharp, intelligent and focused on his craft. There is a genuine warmth to his delivery and for those of us who have been fans since the 90s, we can’t help but reciprocate that warmth. You can find middle-aged comedians discussing how they’re happily married at any comedy venue, but you might not find Richard Herring’s perverse and piteous take so readily. This is a sequel to his 2007 show, “Oh F*** I’m 40.” and sets up, what he admits is an optimistic cycle of marking the decades with new shows with “Oh sh*t I’m 60.” already marked on this reviewer’s calendar (with similar optimism). 

This very funny show is still on tour and details can be found at http://www.richardherring.com/gigs/ .

Reviewer - Ben Smith
on - 15/4/18

Lucy Porter: Choose Your Battles - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Scruffily dressed and self-mockingly self-aggrandising this diminutive comedienne bounced onto the Lowry's Aldridge Studio stage this evening.

The title of Porter's current tour is 'Choose Your Battles', which, she tells us, is taken from a book about parenting that she has recently read and found great affinity with.

Porter has a hugely relaxed and chatty style; gossipy and down to earth, developing a lovely rapport with her audience. [especially a chap on the front row!] and it is like sitting in a cafe listening to a friend you haven't seen in ages tell you all about them with you not being able to get a word in edgeways!

The show is all about how she is extremely conflict averse, and how this has had an impact on her life, with particular reference to her marriage and bringing up her two children.

Whether true or not, the whole evening is a series of anecdotes, some funnier than others, which give us a lovely insight inside Porter's world. We learn about her parents, the little notes left lying all round the house [passive aggressive notes], and the Coronation Street punchline was definitely worth waiting for.

We learned a lot about her husband, and their marital problems. According to Porter he is called Justin, extremely tall, an actor, exceedingly posh, arrogant and high-handed; and much of her routine this evening concerned the obvious differences between them, and how they handle 'difficult' situations in the home. Porter being very forgetful and scatty, and her husband being disapproving and sardonic.

There are two huge positives to Lucy Porter's show; whether you like her style of comedy or not. First, she doesn't use a warm-up comedian. [she has been there and done that herself - with a show called 'Puppetry Of The Penis', explaining what that was all about was the funniest show start ever, and sadly this evening garnered a mere titter], and second, she keeps the profanities to an absolute minimum, which I wholeheartedly applaud.

The two hours in her company were very pleasant. Sadly though her anecdotes were a little short on laughs, and only once was I able to actually belly laugh. Too much build-up for too little pay-off from each of her sometimes quite long-winded racontuering .But some of the things she commented on actually did hit home - especially the comments about social media and how we use it.

The absolute highlight of her set this evening for me was the utterly idiotic over-response of the French after she had made a very funny joke live on radio about them defecating in the showers  If this is a true anecdote, then the negativity she received from this was, as she so rightly said, genuinely baffling.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 15/4/18