I’ve started writing regularly about comedy for the Morning Star.

Back in the day I had a culture column for them, writing about everything from books to video games. I seem to remember having a very earnest byline photo and a pun-based column title – “Culture Matters”, I believe. I remember being super pleased when my column would appear on the same day as that of a little-known Labour backbencher called Jeremy Corbyn.

My editor was a lovely old communist called Cliff Cocker, who would sometimes misunderstand some of the references in the copy but was ever-enthusiastic about my writing style. I was sad to hear of his death last year, but you can’t say it wasn’t a life well lived.

So far I’ve written about Sharlin Janan’s fabulous monthly night Brown Sauce, and the debut night of Julia Masai’s outsiders jamboree Comedy From Hell.

Hopefully in the lead up to Edinburgh I’ll do some interviews and features too – watch this space.

Cycling up Ditchling Beacon

“Be careful”.

Usually I ignore it. But this time, I bite:

“Do you say that to all your friends heading out, or just the ones cycling? Do you like my new cycle cap?”

“Why a cap and not a helmet?”

Cyclists head out on their rides and journeys knowing that if someone in a few tonnes of metal decides to kill them, most will presume it’s one’s own fault. Particularly if you’re not wearing a little plastic head guard, high vis, and whatever other baubles that are deemed to keep you as safe as Hove station was yesterday.

Sometimes you just want a “have a nice ride”, rather than a reminder of the huge amounts of arbitrary violence out there and the blame you’ll receive if you fall victim to it.

This conversation remained on my mind as I cycled up Ditchling road, gradually escaping Brighton’s upper suburbs and golf courses for the South Downs beyond.

They’ve stuck in a new cycle and walking path for the last half mile up towards the A27, smooth and wide and well surfaced. I took it happily, only to be dumped back with a sudden “rejoin carriageway” into the cars queuing at the top. This is still better than what was there before.

Awkwardly onto and off Coldean Lane, with its drivers itching to get only the dual carriageway, and then you’re up on to the Ditchling Road proper.

The landscape opens up, and the temperature drops a degree or two. It was uphill but I felt like I was flying.

There are a lot of cyclists who use this route, and drivers have learned, for the most part, to be patient. This side of the downs is the gently sloping one – pity the poor cyclists coming up the other side, in the lowest gear on a winding hill road, drivers revving their engines behind.

I made it to the top and pulled into the car park, for a £4 99 and a selfie. I could see for miles, and felt like cycling on to London on a whim.

Instead, I turned back into the wind that had been pushing me all the way up, and flew back down to Brighton.

There are a few memorable sights on the way down. There’s the football stadium nestled in the foothills to the left; the weird London Eye style lollipop tower poking its head over the terraced houses leading to the sea.

And further off to one’s right, the scar cutting through the landscape that is the A27, carving its way to Shoreham and beyond.

You’ll have noticed the amount of times I’ve mentioned cars and drivers in this blog post. And, truthfully, I don’t usually worry this much. I am out of practice at non-urban riding. I’ll get « used to it » again, the way one gets used to air pollution or living on a main road.

And yet.

I got to thinking how Ditchling Beacon could so easily be, as it were, a rural LTN – keep the car park at the top open for visitors, but don’t allow through traffic. Does this sound utopian or just selfish? I don’t know.

But as I prepare for a long journey across England next month, I wonder how many more overtakes I will need to flinch at, knowing that if the driver is drunk, distracted or careless, this will be the last thing I ever think.

Next Level Sketch with Daniel Willis and Just These Please

Next Level Sketch with Just These Please. Not pictured: Daniel Willis on a train to Brighton

I can’t take too much credit for this one.

Distracted by writing and learning a song to perform at my sister’s impending wedding, approximately 95% of the organisation, preparation and planning was done by my fabulous co-producers Paul Creasy and Nadine Bailey, pictured here, as everyone should be, on the far left.

I had also recused myself from the cast, which meant all I had to do was host and usher. This was about all I was capable of in any case: my last bike job of a hectic day was shifting a sofa for a lovely food bank worker in Somerstown, meaning I arrived somewhat late and flustered.

Using an imaginary mic.

After an intro of relentless pro-union propaganda – with jokes! – I vacated the stage for our first guest act, Daniel Willis.

Dan is bringing his debut sketch show to Edinburgh this summer, ably assisted by his director, NLS and Factually Inaccurate tech legend Jamie Clarke. Here he previewed twenty minutes of it, and from what we saw on Wednesday it’s going to be a very funny and revealing delve into the psyche of “Dan Willis”, a man.

His interaction with a legion tech cues – essentially having a conversation with recorded versions of himself and, I assume, other members of his sketch group The Free Mondays – remains an impressive feat, and I urge you to go see him perform in “Scotland” this summer.

Hey it’s Next Level Sketch! Over the past year we’ve built up a really lovely core of performers and writers, and we continue to develop our own style from our many-headed beast of a writing process.

Paul Creasy and a horse.

A special word for James Turner, who marked his return with a couple of brilliant and extremely stupid sketches with delightfully satisfying punchlines, and to Shruti Sharma, who has gone from helping out on tour to being a delightfully sardonic on-stage presence in a matter of months.

And thanks, also, to Roderick, for being the Jesus of my dreams.

Flex Toomey, Jesus, Nadine Bailey, Manisha Patel, and Judas.

Our headliners were returning champions Just These Please, performing in front of a black void with mysterious transformative properties*.

Previewing their entire hour-long Edinburgh show, Honestly No Pressure Either Way, JTP remain “Top Gun” writers and performers, learning their craft, like most sketch comedians, on a nuclear powered aircraft carrier in the mid-1980s.

They’re all such strong performers. One thing I love to do while watching them is keeping an eye on whoever has least to do in a particular sketch: they’re still giving it their all, as if the whole world is watching, which – given their social media numbers – is pretty much the case.

Sketch Comedy tends towards the nice, but these four are especially lovely, and we heartily recommend their Edinburgh show to you and all your many lovers.

* They brought a screen with them to get changed behind.

Christian Brighty: Playboy, Brighton Fringe

I first saw Brighty as 1/3 of clown collective Privates, which is an unusual number of balls. Here, he plays a very different kind of testicle in the shape of eighteenth century heartbreaker Lord Christian Brighty – an ancestor, perhaps – in this very enjoyable hour of caddery, invisible ballroom partners, and ships struggling with a surfeit of semen.

The first trick with playing a character is establishing who you are, quickly, and Brighty does this by first disparaging and then flirting with the audience, accompanied by some fantastic prop work and a very funny routine about Cupid.

His character is a bastard, a sex-obsessed flibbertigibbet straight out of Romantic central casting, but he is clearly a lovely and charming man.

Sometimes this gets confusing, as Brighty the performer is extremely kind and gentle with the audience – gleaning some of the funniest moments of the night, particularly when he asks a shy young man to paint him the Georgian equivalent of the unsolicited dick pic – and this clashes occasionally with Brighty the absurd send-up of all the sexist assumptions of all those period dramas.

There are puns. There is exceptional prop and voiceover work. There are horrifying prosthetics. There is an unexpected interlude in the language of love (not German).

And in the end, there is a point, and a drawing of a line between the mores of yesterday and the developing rules of today, where mainstream society and culture is struggling to keep up with the explosion in post-heteronormative relationships, and some people – let’s face it, it’s men – taking advantage of the uncertainty in between.

Or else it’s just a ruddy good excuse for some naughty jokes. One of the two.

Christian Brighty: Playboy will be at Edinburgh I’m sure

Brighton Fringe: Luke Rollason: Bowerbird and Gämez presents: TV Pilots Live!

In a city as iconoclastic as Brighton, the Jubilee was always going to be weird. Friday was a combination of marauding day trippers and unbothered locals, with the Union Jack per square mile quotient pleasingly low.

Luke Rollason I first saw a few years ago at The Vault Festival, dressed as a sperm. His current show, Bowerbird, has developed gradually over the past few months – including some experimentation at shows I produce – so it was with an entirely undeserved parental pride that I watched the full hour play out to a rapt audience at the spiegel tent.

Even by the exceptional standards of modern clowning, Rollason has a singular physical charm, and it was a pleasure to watch him unleash these skills on a substantial and occasional unwilling audience.

Slight in body but big in hair and eyebrow, Luke is the master of the intentional mistake. From extension cable manipulation while dressed as a preposterous lamp to surreal interludes by human sofas, there’s a beautiful warmth and kindness to this exceptionally stupid material.

Gämez are a Hoopla house team specialising – as the name suggests – in short form improv. TV pilots is a lovely conceit to dredge fresh comedic silt out of some old and familiar games, and despite the small audience – like I said, it was a strange Friday – the troupe gave their all.

I know good performers treat triumph and disaster as the twin imposters that they are said to be, but the energy in the room for TWO paying punters was incredible to see.

It almost felt like we were lucky enough to be at a particularly banging rehearsal, as stupid telenovelas, sweaty and surreal dating shows, and nonsensical interviews all flew by with plenty of laughs and unexpected moments. I loved how much these performers evidently took delight in each other’s cleverness and on-stage successes.

I hear they had a proper audience on Saturday, too, and it’s no less than what they deserve. Go see them at Hoopla Impro if you get a chance, they’re usually around or about.

Luke Rollason and Gämez will, I expect, be performing at the Camden Fringe festival.

Next Level Sketch with Cow Tools and Julia Masli

No one buys any tickets: I worry. Loads of people buy tickets: I worry.

Such is the lot of a comedy producer with comedy anxiety. I knew we were going to have a decent crowd in, but what if it’s terrible? What if I’m terrible? I am like the ancient Gauls, worried that the sky is going to fall in, and my only magic potion is booze.

The sky didn’t fall in. I hosted and felt as confident on stage as I ever have, getting two genuinely big laughs for a joke about the queen ordering the assassination of princess Diana (happy Jubilee!) and a joke about the futility of democracy.

I play a lot of characters, and sometimes feel more comfortable hosting as a character, but today a friend reminded me that a lot of what makes us funny is truth, and that I was recognisably being myself up there on Wednesday night.

Me not being myself.

And she’s right: I felt comfortable with the audience interaction, and allowing myself enough time and confidence to build up to a decent, unexpected punchline. The laughter felt good, and I can see how this kind of this becomes addictive.

Queen Gangs.

I really enjoyed our set of sketches, though we still have work to do on timing and pacing. We’ve built up such an excellent cast of regular performers now; we’ve got a pool of about 10-12 people I feel so comfortable being on stage with, and it was great to get John and Shruti in the cast for the first time.

My favourite sketch was probably Paul Creasy’s Queen Gangs, which, incredibly, got the biggest laugh of the night for a gag about austerity. Perhaps, as with my opening material, we can afford to be a little bit more topical.

“My mum says I’m the perfect man”.

Our special guests this month were Cow Tools and Julia Masli. Cow Tools I booked on trust (them being recommended by my Factually Inaccurate co-producer Maddi), a hilariously mean review of them on Chortle, and the name.

Gary Larson is a weird genius, Cow Tools is so wrong it’s right, and I can see why this pair of gentlemen have adapted the name and the ethos. Fake heckling, misdirection, and some very funny canned laughter mean that this double act are a yes from me.

Our headliner was the fabulous Julia Masli. From the first time I saw her with the ludicrous Legs comedy, I was captivated by her economy of language and grace of performance.

Here performing a decent chunk of her Choosh show, Masli covers topics including migration and one’s own sense of place and identity, and even the function and purpose of the arts in an era increasingly defined by personal wealth, with a real steeliness and some incredible physical comedy.

An Estonian-born woman wearing a toilet seat around her neck asking a blameless member of the audience, “Do you like immigrants?” is worth a billion edgy men and their Netflix specials.

I’m going to recuse myself from the cast of the next Next Level Sketch show, but I still plan to write for it and host. Tickets are available here and we’ve got another amazing line-up.

The Producers: a Mel Brooks musical, Bridewell Theatre, London

London has myriad nooks and crannies. Tucked away on an old alley off Fleet Street is the Bridewell theatre, where has-been Broadway producer Max Bialystok is resigned to a life of first-night flops and exploring certain other nooks and crannies in order to finance them.

The Producers, a musical of a film about a musical, could only have been written by Mel Brooks. No one else would have dared. Even in this, a wonderfully professional amateur production of the thing, there are still sharp intakes of breath when we see the first swastika armband – still not as many laughs as this fabulous script deserved due, I would guess, concerns of taste.

Where else will you find a part listed as “Lead Tenor Stormtrooper”?

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the plot of this classic, where two by turns bumbling and scheming men put on Springtime For Hitler, a musical so crass that it’s sure to be a profitable disaster.

The camp extravaganza of the titular number is performed beautifully here, but what’s wonderful about the stage version is that none of the other songs pal in comparison. And the plot, fleshed out (in more ways than one) with much larger roles for movie bit-part characters like Ulla the Swedish secretary, is both meta and narratively satisfying.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Euan Brown’s perma-gurning, unhinged Bavarian playwright Franz Liebkind, played with just the right amount of camp and artful artlessness; a special word too, to the puppeteers, who did an incredible job on the Nazi pigeons.

Of the two leads, who both have a ludicrous amount to do, Ricky Hutchinson plays the slight, tentative Leo Bloom with a subtle physicality, while Dom Conte owns the character of Max Bialystok, whether he’s placating Nazis, wooing old ladies, or singing about the sheer injustice of it all.

A word, too, for the ensemble, who were magnificent, whether shifting scenes as glamorous showgirls, going full Irish as NYC cops, and, most memorably of all, dancing and singing as those relentless grannies, swinging their mobility aids into the air like they just don’t care.

With a fab live band, lovely location, and strong direction, this was one of the most fun nights out I’ve had in ages. Build a Time Machine and go see. It’s worth changing the course of history for…

The Producers was on at the Bridewell Theatre in the third week of May 2022

Brighton Fringe 2022: Bex Turner, Ishi Khan, Kate Martin and Daniel Foxx

It’s been a while since I’ve lived in a place where I can do what I did this evening. When I lived in Stoke Newington, one could walk home from club nights. Hop from a cafe. Be extremely blasé about the concept of “night buses”.

Now, I am in Brighton, during the Brighton fringe. And I figured out that I could see a few shows in a row of a Sunday evening, provided I brought my bike with me. And didn’t mind hot footing it from venue to venue.

Brighton is beautiful, but hillier than the tourist guides indicate. Thank heavens for owning a bike. And so I could glide downhill from Bex Turner then huff and puff up again to the Duke of Wellington and Ishi Khan.

Turner has performed at Factually Inaccurate before, but actually her own personal brand of awkward chaos fits a full hour show a lot better: you adapt, as an audience member, to her awkward, occasionally terrifying world.

The poster for the show – the artist, grinning maniacally, with a chainsaw – has little to do with the material. But it’s still a handy shorthand for how little of a shit the artist cares about whether she brings the crowd with her or leaves them shivering in a metaphorical ditch.

And this is not a bad thing. Turner’s comedy is very funny and honest, therapy in the best way, and the strained, rigor mortis grin of a lady in the front row only adds to the vibrant poignancy of some of Bex’s more outre observations.

That said, I think there’s a character comedian here straining to get out. Whether a fake silent movie star (your correspondent keel hauled into being the keystone cops), a terrible agony aunt, or Sue Pollard – Turner really nails not being herself. And this isn’t to say she’s no good in person: far from it. Just the segue from one to another needs to be smoother, more rewarding – and with a payoff. But still: this is a fun, troubling hour.

A fast cycle down and then the hill brings me to Ishi Khan.

The promoters play it coy when I arrive asking if I’m too late. Turns out I’m the third paying punter.

This is no sick burn on either the promoter or the performer – it’s Sunday teatime; people are currently choosing between eating and heating.

I have a loud laugh. And Khan, from her fake penis to her exceptional twerking, is a vivid and open performer. And so, with a degree of inevitability, I am invited on stage to perform Bollywood dance routines – appallingly – with our hero, who knows all about immigration, being fingered by disappointing rugby fans, and how to pronounce Loughborough.

One thing I loved about Khan is how she tacked four punters like we were a sold out show – with oodles of charm, care, and control. See her. See her do comedy.

From here I cycled like a rollacoaster – honestly, Brighton is hillier than the brochure claims – to see Kate Martin and Daniel Foxx.

“It’s 70% what you heard last year”, claims Martin, erroneously. Some comedians flip and flop –

Others, perhaps the more sensible ones, hone their material then hone a bit more, for years, as I assumed occurred with Pericles before he died due to being too gorgeous.

It’s a minor complaint because their sets were so amazing, but neither Martin or Foxx *needed* the “I know what you’re thinking…” intros comparing them to famous lesbians, aliens or celebrities. I understand this material: it puts the audience at ease. But there’s no need to put an audience at ease when they’re already lapping everthing up.

Even Foxx’s adlibs landed, but i particularly enjoyed the eloquent nailing of what it was like to grow up gay in the early noughties; the fabulous wrestler boyfriend; and the confidence he exuded while throughout out occasionally niche experiences. Foxx is, I believe, “for the win”

What to say about Kate Martin? An increasingly assured performer, Martin knows who she looms like and isn’t afraid to wait to unleash this self-knowledge on us, the audience. 

My favourite bit of her set was the erection section. Genuine, pleasing obliviousness from this Vulcan lesbian trying to figure out what cocks are supposed to look like.

She will go far. And I shall be there! In a non-creepy way, hopefully.

Todmorden Folk Festival 2022

“What’s the name of the place we’re going to again? Post-mortem?”

I’m with my brilliant, Spanish academic friend and we are on an adventure to a pretty little market town. Paula is the sort of person who talks to everyone and everyone.

In this spirit, the previous night she had met an environmentalist Colombian percussion outfit who play raucous tunes on a range of instruments recycled from plastic household items.

They told her they were performing at a festival the following day: why not go along?

So she, and therefore we, did.

We heard the jingle of bells as soon as we got off the train. Morris groups were roaming past the ‘spoons and the Lidl, and outside the pretty little indoor market a huge puppet with a hammer was tormenting local dogs.

We went to the community centre to pick up programmes, and ending up eating at a cafe in the market, which was a time travel device transporting you to 1952. They still have spam on the menu, and I had to explain to Paula a) what spam is and b) why it is still served in some places. Nostalgia is a powerful thing.

Less expectedly, I had to explain what a chip butty is. You’d have thought this would be on the life in the UK test she was forced to pass to continue being an academic here.

After our pies (no spam) and mushy peas, we made our way to the working men’s club (Paula: “will I be allowed in?”).

Upstairs was yer classic roll section in the round, with various men – and it was almost all men – taking it in turns to waggle their accordion or perform an Eric Idle cover. There was a palpable excitement that this was all allowed to happen again, and there were some beautiful songs and some lovely stories.

“I see you’ve got a ukulele in your hand”, said the de factor leader of the session, and so I was gently encouraged, for the first time in my life, to sing a song at an open session.

I did “This Can’t Go On Forever”, inspired by the elated mood of post-lockdown communal love, and despite my shaky hands and even shakier voiced it was well received.

Half way during my song, the Colombians arrive and sat down next to us. Let the culture clash commence!

They were glorious. Gorgeous flute, brilliant vocals, insane rhythms. After doing two numbers, they suggested a “jam”, which means we were treated to the sight of old guys with accordions and fiddles trying to pick up the furious, scattershot tempo of drums from thousands of miles away.

This ended up a shambolic cacophony, but the broad grind on the faces of everyone in the room suggested this was a cross-cultural experiment that had done its job.

I ended up doing five numbers:

This Can’t Go On Forever

Union Miners

First Dog In Space

Come Back From San Francisco

Bottleneck at Capel Curig

I only recorded the Magnetic Fields number, which you can hear below. But I got nice feedback about my own songs from some musicians I really respected, and I have the confidence now to do more open mic and folk events.

It is interesting how much scarier I find singing to performing comedy, though. I deffo feel more of a fraud in this environment, perhaps due to my lack of knowledge and musicality.

But I’ll be back.

Kenzo

The last few weeks I’ve been hanging out with a dog called kenzo. Kenzo is a springer spaniel who lives with a fabulous musician who is out on tour with his legendary octogenarian mother. My job is to hang out, go on walks, and water the plants occasionally. Also, to not kill the fish, but if they die, well, they’re only fish.

A cafe in East Moseley

This is far from my first dog sit, but I’m beginning to understand what Chris Packham meant when he said his dogs (in this case, poodles) saved his life when he was younger. As soon as Kenzo is off lead with plenty of undergrowth to explore, she is the platonic ideal of dog.

Nunhead cemetery

Bouncing, sniffing, bounding, leaping, from one side of my path to the next. And the unadulterated joy for the outdoors rubs off on me, and I notice the birds, and the trees, and even find a kind of peace in the unseasonal April snow.

I’ve read a lot recently on how having insecure housing – and for Britain, that’s pretty much all private renters – really impacts on one’s ability to maintain a relationship, or indeed to leave one. But I don’t read as much about how the lack of ownership generally means you can’t have any pets. 

Most landlords are pretty insistent about this. With a cat, you can perhaps get the various accessories (tree, litter tray, dreamies) out of the house for an inspection. For a dog, it’s harder due to the sheer levels of care and work required. It’s like having a child, except you never get past the clearing up the shit phase. And they never head off to university.

But it’s so, so worth it. And as I grow older, I wonder if I’ll ever reach the point of being able to have a Kenzo of my own, or whether I’ll continue to cosplay my way through owning (sitting) the dogs and cats of the south.