Review: Weapons of Mass Hilarity, 2Northdown, Monday 16th August

“Where do you want to sit?”

“The front”.

Not the usual exchange when attending stand-up comedy, but this was a show with a difference. Weapons of Mass Hilarity showcases comics with links to the Middle East, and the friend I was with is British Iraqi. Of course she wanted to sit at the front and see me picked on for a change.

Fortunately David Lewis, our MC, is an equal opportunities offender. Myself and all the other white guys (also, inevitably, called James) copped our fair share, but so did a septuagenarian Iraqi engineer, an Assyrian family, and Lewis’ own mother, who wasn’t even there but had to be apologised to repeatedly.

But that’s kinda the point. This night is a reclamation as much as it is a celebration: here are the things that unite us, and here are the things that we have the right to take the piss out of ourselves about, and frankly we’re going to be funnier than you while we do it.

It was a dizzying line-up. Maria Shehata set the tone, the Egyptian-American comedian brilliant in both material and delivery. The audience boiled with recognition laughter at Shehata’s description of parents who think you’re dead if you don’t answer the phone [1]; I especially liked the comparison of women who don’t want children with topless men on the tube – it’s allowed, but we don’t like it, do we?

Next was WMH founder Jenan Younis, already the object of Lewis’ ironic ire due to the number of people in the audience claming to be there specifically to see her [2]. We enjoyed the full range of Younis’ material, from home counties racism, body hair norms and unfortunate autocorrects; and doctors, sexy and otherwise. Our favourite bit? Her white friends planning an adventure on a dinghy post-lockdown, and Younis explaining why her somewhat lack of comfort with that had nothing to do with the water.

Remember the seventy-ish guy in the audience? His son, Yazan Fetto, was on stage next. “Any Iraqis in the audience” was met by a single-person bellow next to me, and a fun riff on how this was not the answer he was planning for.

I enjoyed Fetto’s set, but there were some groaners in there – some of the puns around Christianity teetered the line of so-bad-they’re-good and so-bad-they’re-bad. We were on better ground with the enjoyably tasteless material about his Nigerian wife, whose emails you will probably be able to find in your spam folder as I write.

The hills are alive with the sound of Victoria Howden! Tonight’s headliner was part naif, part diaphragm, with brilliant, witty, and memorable tales of being a musical-obsessed kid growing up in Jerusalem. Though Howden’s stage persona – think Björk in the It’s Oh So Quiet video, only six foot tall – is much looser than one expects from a stand-up, don’t be fooled: the pull back and reveal of why she was even on the bill was masterfully timed, the songs were beautiful, and the stories very funny indeed. 

And poof! All of a sudden, the metaphorical curtain was down, our metaphysical tour was over, and all that was left was for my friend to venture, blinking, into the evening light and go share stories with some fellow Iraqis.

**** ½ out of *****

[1] my friend: “when she looked aghast at the suggestion of her white friends that she ‘just ignore the call’ I was laughing so hard I had to gasp for breath”.

[2] Full disclosure: Younis played our own Factually Inaccurate night last week, but that was a bespoke set about farting, the first time “bespoke” and “farting” have been used in the same sentence.

Proceeds for this show were donated to MAP (medical aid for Palestinians) and Shlama Foundation – click on each charity to find out more and to donate.

Review – Funny Femmes, 2Northdown, Sunday 15th August

The conveyor belt of straight white men never stops. I should know: I myself was made at the straight white man factory. Production is booming, and despite consumer feedback, many of my model think that a) we’re funny and b) people should listen to what we have to say.

And so we are vacuum packed, stuck on lorries, and distributed to open mic nights up and down the country.

I’m sure Charlie George, Alex Bertulis-Fernandes, and Sharlin Jahan have considered sabotage at source, gumming up the gears with our own melted Britpop vinyl. But for now, they’ve joined forces, because promoters still find it difficult to move beyond tokenism on their bills and in their minds.

Sunday’s was a work in progress show but you wouldn’t know it from the quality of the gags. Charlie George was up first, dancing and sliding to the stage like a graceful slinkey. A pansexual person with a clowning and dance background, the physical movement accentuates the stories and tales of uncertain living and how cats only show you their bumholes if they like you.

George’s story of how her ultra-religious parents found out she wasn’t straight deserves to be turned into a six part Netflix series, and whatever the situation, whatever the shame, and the tears, and the opposition, she comes through hilarious and intact. 

Alex Bertulis-Fernandes is a slightly less hopeful proposition, as befits someone with clinical depression. To a fellow sufferer, there was something liberating to see someone be so honest and so intentionally flippant about their condition, even if there were a few occasions where the audience were uncertain whether to laugh. Not me, though. I laughed like the proverbial drain.

Third up – I won’t say headliner, this is a communal show – was Sharlin Jahan.

Jahan performed at our own Factually Inaccurate night last week, at extreme late notice, and was extremely excellent. Tonight, there was less material about eggs, but her advice on dating “feedback” from white guys, riffs on nipple-less avatar characters, and contempt for certain age-gap relationships were all extremely funny and tight.

You’d think this set had been performed a thousand times before, such was the confidence, assurance and charm.

They all came on stage together at the end, and though Bertulis-Fernandes’ mic was cut off – probably by the charred hand of patriarchy, rising up through the liquid remains of a thousand Oasis records – the warmth and solidarity these three shared was plain to see.

Catch ‘em while you can in venues this size: soon they’ll be selling out Knebworth.

***** out of *****

Funny Femmes (work in progress) perform at Battersea Arts Centre on 29th September

North Downs Way and the Pilgrims Way, Farnham to Guildford

Frazzled after a gig, I took myself off for a walk. Many years ago, I attempted to walk the full North Downs way with a now ex-friend. But for reasons I no longer recall, we started at Guildford, rather than the actual start point of Farnham.

And so, a decade later, but still feeling early somehow, I made it to the beginning.

We might get there one day.

Farnham station is separated from the town centre by a fast bypass, which takes ages to cross as cars are prioritised. The town itself is little better: the climate crisis has not make it to Surrey, if this market town filled with pensioners hemmed in on tiny pavements waiting forlornly for a gap in the traffic is anything to go by.

This town could be so beautiful.

I bought a sandwich for my walk and had a chat with lovely Jack in the town hall, who explained that this was once very much a brewing town, and that her partner used to organise raves in the abandoned lido back in the eighties. This is now a pretty walled garden, and a welcome respite from the gyratory.

Time to go. I headed out along the river Wey, hoping to connect with the NDW path. But the overgrown footpath spewed me out on to the hard shoulder of the busy bypass, with no crossing. Grumpily, I headed my way back into town, and then out again back towards the station.

Things improved as I left Farnham and its contempt for pedestrians behind. Heading under the railway and reuniting with the river, I passed some idyllic farmhouses as I relaxed into the walk.

I had vague plans to swim in the river if I found a secluded spot, but the waters looked decidedly brown. Privatised water companies have been dumping sewage at an unprecedented rate this summer, so I decided not to go through the motions.

Pausing on a country road trying to figure out where to go next, a fast-paced woman passed me. Catching her up ten minutes later at a gate, she asked me if I was doing the North Downs Way. She explained that she was doing the Pilgrims Way, and had come from Winchester.

A pilgrim! In my mind, big sections of the NDW and the pilgrim route were interchangeable, but there were, it turned out, more deviations than I had realised. As seems obvious in hindsight, this is mainly due to churches: there aren’t many up on the ridge of chalk passing through southern England, so the latter passes more villages and historical sites of habitation.

We fell into step, and got talking. Her name was Amy, and she was a teacher, and religious [1]; I am a gigging comedian and layabout. We got on well, and when the pilgrims way and the NDW divided, I turned left and joined her.

One awesome and very Japanese thing about walking pilgrim routes is each church has its own stamp. I loved Amy’s stamp book and excitement at heading inside cool and hitherto unexplored churches.

The only slight drawback to taking the Pilgrims’ Way was more time spent on the verges of roads; the company and the conversation more than made up for this. It meant, for example, we could both enjoy mysterious sights and signs, like this non-denominational tribute to the five pillars of Surrey.

When will there be a Harvester for the world?

Eventually, the two long-distanced walking routes merged again, and we headed up onto the chalk ridge before descending down into the busy Guildford streets, the station, and home.

We did not see a single other walker all day.

Amy will eventually reach Canterbury. I don’t know where I am heading yet, but I am enjoying the journey.

[1] You don’t have to believe in God to be a pilgrim, but it helps.

Promotion

I am rubbish at promotion in both senses of the word. In this instance I am talking about telling people there is a thing happening, and it would be nice if they came to the thing, rather than climbing the greasy pole.

But this feels pretty greasy too. Google and Facebook have eviscerated the very things small, local, independent promoters rely on.

Whereas once you’d have had several local newspapers, a couple of listings magazines, and some websites and bloggers willing to give you the time of day, now print is pretty much dead and online is a mess of awful, sketchy sites designed for not much more than SEO scamming, and mysterious algorithms more interested in selling you things than telling you about cheap and fun activities in your area, on Google and Facebook respectively.

If this all sounds a bit old man yells at cloud, you’d be right. Younglings, such as those murdered in tv documentary Revenge of the Sith, are social media natives, and if you follow the right people and spend your time on the correct social networking sites you can still find out what’s going on.

But it is exhausting. We all read about how the gobbling up of the Internet between two or three ludicrous behemoths is bad for democracy, but it’s bad for art and culture too. The big boys will thrive, as they always will. But it’s tougher than ever down at the bottom.

Still. Despite all the moaning above, I’m happy to say I’ve managed to do two interviews: one with Southwark Press, the other with Phoenix Remix.

The latter is an exhaustive and relentless old-school blog kept up in their spare time by its indefatigable and often night shift-working editor. The interview was very much of the “type your answers into this document” affair, as you would expect for what is essentially a labour of love; a successor to the old-school fanzine[1].

Southwark press is an actual newspaper; the only one I could find covering London Bridge, where our venue resides.

I found the arts editor’s email address online and wrote to him, outlining our night, explaining why it’s good, interesting, and worthy of his attention, and suggested he interview me about it.

His response was “No.” Instead, he asked me to interview myself, suggesting that this will at least lead to an amusing stand-up routine.

I was amused – local journalists, after all, are the last of the great English eccentrics – but also a bit bemused. An interview is time: time spent doing your research; time thinking up questions; time writing up your notes or transcript; time editing for sense.

By essentially getting me to do all the work, he was taking the piss.

But like I said, I am bad at promotion. I did as he asked, allowing myself, to maintain a modicum of dignity, plenty of sass.

Here is what I wrote, and here is what ended up in the eventual article.

And yes: tickets are still available.

[1] and who would Edit a fanzine these days

Review: Paperboy, The Lion & Unicorn, The Camden Fringe

Emerging in preposterously oversized suits and an explosion of physical banter, our two would-be journalists, Matt and Matthew, dominate the stage with their volume, their aggressive movements, and their self-entitlement. Meanwhile Phoebe, their assistant, sits quietly in the corner, staring at her empty inbox, trying desperately not to react…

Life imitates art imitates life. This three woman comedy, directed by Amy Tickner and from the pen of Eve Lytoliss, is crude, exaggerated, and silly, and yet; Britain is run by ex-Spectator journalists more ignorant and stupid than these deliberately exaggerated caricatures. So who’s laughing now?

Paperboy is a lovely title, because these boys’ egos are paper-thin. Matt is the supposed Alpha, brandishing £50 notes like an eighties yuppie and reacting with extreme petulance to any reversal of fortune or perceived challenge to his dominance. Giorgia Valentino is an engaging physical presence, all flared nostrils and awkward confidence, and plays Matt almost like a hybrid of Rik Mayall in the Young Ones and Rik Mayall in the New Statesman.

Matthew is his [perhaps closeted] number two, with the shit-eating grin of the eternal lackey. As played by Nandini Bulchandani, this character is another expert parody of the mannerisms and physical tics of rich young men. With no concept of physical space but with at least the tiniest inkling that their behaviour is toxic and unacceptable, Matt is the one you suspect can be redeemed. In the Mitchell and Webb sketch, Matthew would be the one wondering if they were in fact the baddies.

Phoebe Taylor-Jones (Phoebe) awaits the banter hurricane.

Surrounded by their boys’ toys, this newspaper office is a playground in the finest Nathan Barley tradition. Ideas for articles about how PMS is a scam and a dead celebrity important only for her handbags and large tits are repeatedly interrupted by golf, ukuleles, and boasting. And throughout it all, Phoebe, played with admirable restraint by Phoebe Taylor-Jones, seethes in the corner…

Full disclosure: I worked for years at a national newspaper, and they are full of people like this. But if anything, they are more toxic: so at a liberal institution, for example, the men who run things know exactly how to hide their toxicity behind a sheen of right-on righteousness, until the inevitable HR investigation and hushed-up departure.

And the right wing press are even worse. In the past two weeks we’ve seen Times columnist Giles Coren laughing at the death of a young, working class woman, or Johnson himself, who on the day this play was performed was joking about Thatcher’s war against the miners.

But Paperboy doesn’t yearn to be realistic. Matt and Matthew are, if anything naifs, straight out of a hornier, more incel Wodehouse, who think a wine’s age is its sell-by-date and a woman exists to serve, confuse, and look hot.

On my attendance, I got the impression the audience were occasionally unsure whether to laugh or to be horrified, which meant some extremely fun lines – including an excellent, subtle “Me Too” joke – didn’t get the response they deserved.

There were perhaps a couple of scenes here that were unnecessary, and Phoebe’s big speech at the end – and Matt’s potential redemption – didn’t quite ring true, although the deadly silence in the auditorium suggested that people watching definitely needed to hear what the assistant character had to say.

Overall these are minor quibbles: Paperboy is an extremely enjoyable debut play, and all three actors are ones to look out for in future. And thinking about it, didn’t the eighties video game of the same name ALSO involve young boys earning points for breaking things…

**** out of *****

Paperboy is on at the Lion and Unicorn on 6th and 7th August. Tickets here.

REVIEW: Janette Mason featuring David McAlmont – Pizza Express High Holborn, 25th June 2021

David McAlmont. Photo: Jennifer Reiter.

David McAlmont is a star regardless of whether he’s walking down Streatham Hill, or dropping off a mattress at the local tip, or on stage in front of thousands of adoring fans. And he’s also a star in front of a socially distanced audience in the basement of a Pizza Express in central London, muching Sloppy Guiseppes and glugging prosecco like there’s no tomorrow, which, you know, there may not be.

Tonight’s gig is advertised as an evening with acclaimed pianist and arranger Janette Mason, and she’s a magnificent musician: as watchable as any classical conductor, as she waves and signals her awesome band to the end of another taut, twisting number. But McAlmont is the one with the timeless top ten hit, the gravitas, and the voice. It’s his show.

For the past few years one has been able to see David perform jazz-influenced tribute shows to David Bowie, Prince, and George Michael at the Hideaway in south London, where Mason is musical director. And tonight, their first show since the pandemic hit, we’re treated to their halting, intimate Rebel Rebel, a slow, brooding Kiss, and a suitably ludicrous Live and Let Die. The playing is impeccable, and there’s a palpable sense of relief and celebration in being able to enjoy that mysterious alchemy of live music and performance again.

Though not quite in McAlmont’s league, Anna Ross is our other vocalist, who channels her inner Neneh Cherry for 7 Seconds and absolutely nails a claustrophobic Sign o’ The Times, a song that sounds ever-more relevant in our era of pandemic and climate emergency.

We’re sent off to a joyous I’m Your Man, band and vocalists in perfect unity, and we emerge, blinding, into the still unsettlingly quiet streets of High Holborn on a Friday night, that voice still echoing, pleasantly, in our collective souls.

Review: Hotel Michelle at Museum of Comedy, Holborn

Michelle Improv
Some of the members of the Michelle improv troupe, all of whom are called Michelle

Banana. Spatula. Improv exists via audience suggestions, and sometimes audiences aren’t very imaginative. Still, it was a surprise to see a Tuesday night audience at the Museum of Comedy in Holborn transmogrify into an Edinburgh Fringe midnight audience. In came the predictable shouts for strippers, nuns, and sex dungeons.

But like all good improvisation groups, Michelle, a Hoopla Impro house team performing as part of the Camden Fringe, don’t take you where you thought you’d necessarily go. But they definitely take you to where you need to be.

Michelle’s setting was a hotel. We were introduced to our world for the next hour by a hunchbacked, perma-smoking impresario played by Michal Banai. She – he – was to be our host and guide, and as I sat wishing I’d shouted out “Guardian Journalist”[1] as a character to compete with all the nuns and strippers, the first scene was underway. 

A security guard interrupts the kitchen staff. Photo: Folusho Falegan.

Very quickly our brains were coming to terms with so many characters: a lion tamer with a lackadaisical approach to cage security. A chef who had invented whole new delicacy (cheese sausages). An Irish woman of Jesus suffering a crisis of faith. A sex dungeon undergoing a health and safety inspection. Cabaret performers stumbling into the wrong scenes, backwards, their movement in practice for a finale that was never to come.

It was very quickly apparent that we were in the hands of artists. It would be very easy, with the suggestions provided, to head towards the lowest common denominator, like a reality tv executive with a pig and a c-list celebrity.

But Hotel Michelle was filled with both funny and sympathetic characters, from Kate Heward’s conflicted nun to Melissa Parker’s deadpan security guard. It crystallised into a real and uncertain world, in which boring registrars derail the renewing of vows, stag dos are thwarted by existential crises, and people chained to walls are tortured, but psychologically.

One important craft in improv, much as in life, is knowing when things have come to an end. And Hotel Michelle judged scenes to perfection, always ending at the most satisfying point, always referencing back to the most enjoyable riffs, and always knowing when to push things, because rules, like plates at a Greek party, are there to be broken.

**** out of *****

Hotel Michelle are performing at the Camden Fringe on 27th August 2021. Tickets: here.

[1] As I was with one, so it could have been interesting.

Film Review: Limbo, starring Amir El-Masry and Vikash Bhai

Waiting for something to happen.

This film opens with two middle aged Scottish TEFL teachers doing a sexy dance to teach “consent 101” to a bunch of bemused asylum seekers.

The scene is beautifully and starkly framed; these woolly liberals grabbing butt, not those seeking a better life, are the butt of the joke. But as the camera cut from the awkward dance to the barely contained horror of those watching on, I wondered what sort of film this was planning to be. For a few terrible minutes, I thought it might be The Office: Refugee Island, with excruciating moments of broad comedy offsetting a tale of warmth, cultural understanding in difficult circumstances, and mutual awkwardness.

Instead, Limbo turned out to be much more interesting than that. A devastatingly deadpan tale of isolation, hope, despair, state cruelty, futility, and humanity, it would be the best film I’d seen all year even if it wasn’t the only film I’d seen all year. And anyway: there’s also a chicken called Freddie Jr. What more do you want?

Our protagonist, Omar, is from Syria. He has ended up off the coast of Scotland – our setting is a nameless, bleak amalgam of several real places, like a less silly Craggy Island – with a dozen other refugees. He shares a house with three other men, all with their own terrible stories and secrets, and carries his instrument – an oud – with him wherever he goes: both physical and metaphorical baggage he can’t let go of.

Unable to work, Omar and the other men spend their time hanging around the exceptionally bleak locales available to them: the park, the jetty, the village hall. The shop which only sells two spices – ketchup and mustard. And the wind is everywhere.

With mobile reception all but non-existent, Omar’s single link with his previous life is the single phone box, which is a portal to his parents, who are struggling and are treated “less than dogs” in Istanbul, and, though them if not directly, his brother, still fighting the good fight, in Syria. The plan is for him to secure leave to remain and for his parents to eventually follow; his estranged sibling offers an alternative and even more dangerous path.

Omar, as played by Amir El-Masry, is a ball of loss and despair. He bounces off everything: the curiosity and friendly racism of the local youths, the travails of his fellow asylum seekers, and even the possibility of change. He is vanishing into this savage landscape, and it’s not certain that his purgatory will or can ever achieve liminality.

But there are others trapped on the island. Most memorably there is Vikash Bhai’s Farhad, from Afghanistan, with a Freddie Mercury obsession and, seemingly, much more able to make the transition. His stream of prizes from the donation centre, from Friends DVDs to second hand car dealer suit, and his love for the aforementioned chicken, keep the film from sinking into the frozen ground despite the camera’s unflinching eye for both the landscape and the characters’ circumstances.

And the locals are trapped too, though they seem unaware of it. I have mentioned Craggy Island, and there are people here who wouldn’t have seemed out of place in Father Ted: the old lady in a shopmobility scooter, her engine whining with unsaid hatreds, and the young woman with a dolphin mask mistaking refugees for potential tourists. 

And most memorably of all, the postie, blasting out opera from his red van, as he gets back in to drive the five or ten metres between each house, while Omar and his friends watch, waiting for letters that never come, bemused at this potential saviour’s alien behaviour. Because the film’s sympathy, if not necessarily its events, are always with the people far from the homes to which they can never return.

***** out of *****

Limbo is on general release.

“It is lumber, man – all lumber!”

Today I had a book returned to me by an old friend. I lent it to her in 2006; she took it back to Canada with her, where it languished in storage for many years. Then it was found in a clear-out, brought back to England, and finally, eventually, unexpectedly, fell back into my possession.

The book is Three Men In A Boat, which is a story of a much gentler journey than the one outlined above. I wonder what its author, Jerome K. Jerome, would have made of his novel making multiple journeys through the skies. It wouldn’t have been fantastical to him, not quite: he lived long enough to experience the early age of aviation, and volunteered as a stretcher bearer in WWI, when the flying machines did fly with ill intent.

But I still suspect he would have found the thought of it rather strange.

Adding another layer to this journey themed onion, I found a permit to travel nestled in its pages, having been used as a bookmark, probably by me. The station it was issued, New Malden, is one the book’s characters would have passed through on the train down from Waterloo to the river in Kingston. I expect they bought proper tickets, though, rather than spending the minimum possible to ward off the small possibility of late night ticket inspectors.

I have no idea where we would have been going at such a time, but I hope we had fun. And I can’t remember why I lent this book, and what I was trying to say by doing so. But that, at least, I can guess.

I am happy it’s made its way back to me, and what that says about the friendship that myself and this person have managed to keep afloat over all these years.

There is a passage from the book, one of my very favourites, that seems apposite, so I’ll leave you with it.

“How they pile the poor little craft mast-high with fine clothes and big houses; with useless servants, and a host of swell friends that do not care twopence for them, and that they do not care three ha’pence for; with expensive entertainments that nobody enjoys, with formalities and fashions, with pretence and ostentation, and with – oh, heaviest, maddest lumber of all! – the dread of what will my neighbour think, with luxuries that only cloy, with pleasures that bore, with empty show that, like the criminal’s iron crown of yore, makes to bleed and swoon the aching head that wears it!

“It is lumber, man – all lumber! Throw it overboard. It makes the boat so heavy to pull, you nearly faint at the oars. It makes it so cumbersome and dangerous to manage, you never know a moment’s freedom from anxiety and care, never gain a moment’s rest for dreamy laziness – no time to watch the windy shadows skimming lightly o’er the shallows, or the glittering sunbeams flitting in and out among the ripples, or the great trees by the margin looking down at their own image, or the woods all green and golden, or the lilies white and yellow, or the sombre-waving rushes, or the sedges, or the orchis, or the blue forget-me-nots.

“Throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need – a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.”