Funny People: My Journey Through Comedy (Roy Smiles)

Written for Exeunt

“Never judge a book by its cover,” someone once famously said. But the ineffectual grin that Roy Smiles is aiming at his readers is actually a pretty good description of what is between his book’s bindings. The same simple straightforwardness that defines Smiles’s expression is what makes Funny People an amiable but rudimentary read.

Subtitled ‘My Journey Through Comedy,’ from the first page, it’s as though we are sitting down with Smiles to watch all his favourite comedy DVDs.  Beginning with Bill & Ben, moving through Tony Hancock, Morecambe and Wise, Alan Bennett, Billy Connolly, Bill Hicks and Steve Martin (to name but a few), the great and good are all present and correct. Along the way, we get snippets of Smiles’s life in bite-sized anecdotal chunks.

In what is a comprehensive if potted account, there is a lot of recognisable material covered here. But there are also a few hidden gems to be found, such as Bob Newhart and WC Fields and quirky shows like The Flying Nun (“the young Sally Fields [as] a nun whose habit allowed her to fly through the city solving people’s problems.”). This is a man who by his own reckoning has spent a lot of time in front of the telly.

As Smiles maps out his comedy history, he uses quotes as markers along the way. Each page is peppered with razor sharp witticisms from artists such as Dean Martin or Richard Pryor. The sheer number of them break any fluidity of narrative but do bring alive his subjects and a lot are laugh out loud brilliant; these comedy heroes of Smiles are included for a reason.

Less engaging are the constant sections of his own work. If the intention was to show how indebted he is to these greats, then the comparison is not a flattering one. Smiles’s plays are homages of giants such as Monty Python and The Goons and are probably shown to much better advantage on a stage. He has a natural talent for parody and captures their voices clearly but we want to read the real thing not pages of imitation however well it has been observed.

The passages where he has no direct artistic connection are more factual and interesting. A chapter on American comedy is used to give a full sense of individual comedians and also their place within a wider historical context. It’s an engaging read. Though perhaps this is only because I am more interested in comedians such as Lenny Bruce than Ken Dodd.

There is nothing in Funny People that you couldn’t find out elsewhere. But whilst it may not hold any major moments of illumination, there is something to please everyone in Smiles’s broad and accessible coverage. Smiles sometimes veers too close to a gushing repetitive fandom (quoting at one point 40 of his favourite Simpsons quotes!) but he is clearly passionate and that buys a lot of goodwill. Endearingly, his final chapter is full of nudges into future research for those readers interested enough to follow them.

It is a sweet ending to an otherwise rather frustrating book. Is Funny People an objective history of comedy in the latter part of the 20th century or an autobiographical account of Smiles’ personal taste? It is not far reaching enough to be the former, nor subjective enough to be the latter. Either way, Funny People feels like the work of a genial enthusiast who has perhaps bitten off more than he can chew.


Gone In 60 Minutes: Edinburgh

Last week the iron grip of the 1 hour show was dissected by Matt Trueman in his Guardian blog “The Fringe seems to favour the sort of short and punchy show that is easy to package. But, in most cases, an hour can only achieve so much” he concluded.  And he’s right; in an hour you can only achieve so much. Or can you? Perhaps by letting go of the idea of a polished Edinburgh show, companies could actually achieve much more.

Received wisdom has it that audiences want to be given a complete package when they go to see an Edinburgh show. They want fulfilment for their £10. This need to tie everything off seems to validate Trueman’s final conclusion; if you need to fit in a beginning, middle AND end into 1 hour how much can you really achieve? But why do we feel this need to round off everything we do? Sometimes incomplete work can be just as successful.

The word completeness seems to have an inherently positive tilt to it, a competent state where everything has been thought out. But just as the negativity that haunts the word ‘critic’ could be questioned (constructive criticism for example) so the default position that ‘completeness’ is a good thing can be. In fact I can disabuse both assignations as I saw three good shows this year that proved that incompleteness can be just as brilliant and more over, often more interesting.

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Belt Up: Outland

Written for Total Theatre

One of three shows Belt Up are presenting at this year’s Fringe, for Outland the company jumped headfirst down a rabbit hole into the wonderful world of Lewis Carroll. They surfaced, a little crumpled, to create a frantic three-hander vignette that feels a bit concertinaed but is never dull. In a cosy room encased with a wardrobe, dressing-up box, sofas and a number of cramped audience members perched on cushions, writer Dominic Allen takes us on a flight of fancy into Carroll’s brain, bleeding a number of stories into one new tale.

Led by Sylvia and Bruno, the brother and sister at the heart of one of Carroll’s lesser-known works, we are presented with a perspective on Carroll’s genius that posits that his flights of fancy stemmed from a form of epilepsy. The cast rush around literally flinging themselves from character to character being one moment the evil uncle, passionate tutor, lovelorn suitor or even jabberwocky. They move lightning fast, throwing on and off outfits like maniacs on speed. It’s impressive but also in this intimate space slightly bemusing.

Out of the steam it seems it’s all about growing up and the scary idea that dreaming may sometimes be OK. It takes itself too seriously at the end and some of the philosophising is trite but Outland is a sweet and inventive hour from this confident company.

Outland plays at C Soco, Edinburgh 03/8/2011 – 29/8/2011 as part of Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Edinburgh is like a box of chocolates, or it should be…

‘Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.’ I spent most of this year’s Edinburgh with Forest Gump’s infamous hallmark card platitude twanging through my head. It may be a statement that stinks of cheese to high heaven but in terms of the Fringe it’s something we could learn from. For a lot of people the festival isn’t like a box of chocolates at all, but rather a very carefully chosen menu and it means they’re missing out on many of the Specials (ok I’ll stop this analogy now).

I’ll admit my new found admiration for pot luck comes from necessity. For the first few years of going to the Fringe my viewing output matched the input of artists that I knew, before slowly moving out to companies I admired and shows I’d heard would be ‘good’. Consequently for the first 8 years of my Fringe history my world was a very small place, full of people who agreed with my theatrical leanings. But in 2011 it exploded as I was plunged into shows and audiences I would never usually see.

Since I have begun writing about theatre I have been sent to things in all corners of the Edinburgh kingdom. Averaging around 6 shows a day it’s been an experience full of highs and lows. Of course I’ve delighted in some but others were a lifetime away from anything I would choose to attend; who really wants to see Paul Daniels: Hair Today Gone Tomorrow? (Actually he was quite good, review here).

It’s been exhausting but invaluable. Not only have I found a couple of hidden treasures (Real Men Dream in Black and White and At the Sans Hotel particularly) but I’ve had my eyes opened to a much more holistic view of the Fringe. And it’s HUGE.

Stop rolling your eyes at me. Of course I know that that’s a received wisdom but how many of us actually experience it in all its messy vastness? I certainly never used to. Now I’ve shared early morning coffee theatre with old American tourists, and marvelled at puppetry with 5 year olds, agog. I’ve despaired at a one on one performance that was meant to be for more than just me (being thanked at the end of that one for simply being there was a low point), relished obscure performance art, endured HORRENDOUS sketch comedy (Sketch Off – consider yourself named and shamed) and watched a lot of mediocre musical theatre. I’m only now really beginning to see Edinburgh for the tapestry that it is, warts, beauty spots and all.

£10 tickets begin to add up so I’m not advocating 40 unknown shows whilst you’re up there. But in between your carefully pre-planned schedule maybe take a dip in the chocolate box just once in a direction you wouldn’t normally tread. Sure, you may get a stinker, but either way you’ll share something with people you’d normally just storm past in the street.

Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari: One Man Show

Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari, One Man Show
Written for Total Theatre

There is one moment of One Man Show when Nigel Barrett mouths off about the horrific attraction of the self-obsessed actor. His face is covered in a bandage with only his wide eyes showing, whilst a projected and grotesque set of lips and teeth move with disturbing urgency and a rumbling voice proclaims how charmingly terrible he is.

It strikes a chord with this performer-heavy audience but it’s also a sharply funny theatrical moment that anyone can relish. When on form this is what Barrett and his Shunt and Edinburgh collaborator Louise Mari do best, creating work that pleases theatre types and the general public alike. But it’s a fine line to tread. If only all of One Man Show could be as entertaining and daring as this satirical monologue.

A deconstruction of the idea of performance itself, and in particular the monologue-led form of its title, this is a surprisingly safe exploration for the wild twosome of Barrett and Mari. Words flash up and Barrett obligingly does the corresponding Garrick-like party piece facial expression. ‘Anger.’ Grrrr. ‘Fear.’ Whimper. ‘Happiness.’ Grin. He gets naked on stage, literally striping away the layers of performance, revelling in its exposing nature.

Fast-paced projections of dirty iconic men flash up behind him and we are given a stunning sunset and even some treats for the interval. Barrett handles his tricky audience with the blasé skill of a pro and gives us lots of rope to hang ourselves with as we rustle sweets and cough, albeit on cue.

But for all its bangs and whistles where is the new ground being covered here? It’s all a bit neat and pat and the questions it asks feel familiar. For a genuinely piercing exploration on the form and function of performance, the role of a performer and their audience, there are more dangerous and ultimately interesting places to go looking this Fringe.

One Man Show plays at C, Edinburgh 03/8/2011 – 29/8/2011 as part of Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Bryony Kimmings: 7 Day Drunk

Written for Exeunt

The crazy world of artists, bohemians and rock and roll stars has always been fuelled by substances both legal and illegal. Just what is the relationship between art and drugs? It’s a question that’s been asked before, but one which hit Bryony Kimmings squarely in the face as she began to address her own relationship with alcohol. Did she need it to make her work? Did she become a better artist after a few drinks?

7 Day Drunk is her attempt to answer this question. Kimmings spent a week in various different states of intoxication; this is the result of her research – and it’s a crazy and hugely entertaining hour. But it’s also one tinged with a seriousness brought to it by the intensely clinical nature of the process. Under the supervision of a medical and psychological team,  Kimmings steadily drank more each day as her artistic output over each 24 hour period was tested in front of an audience.

For all its flamboyance there’s a level of grit to 7 Day Drunk. Snippets of film show us Kimmings in various different stages throughout the week and whilst the dramatic highs and cold lonely lows are clear for all to see, the main feeling one gets is of her endurance. Alongside funny stories and wacky dances, there is a fittingly sober side to 7 Day Drunk,one in which the consequences of her drinking, other than artistic success, are explored. You get the feeling she’s saying ‘This wasn’t meant to be fun’ even though the finished production is often great fun to watch.

From the off you feel like you know Kimmings. Although she dresses in outrageous outfits, plays with bubbles and unicorn heads and creates magical songs whilst drunk, she seems like a pal. It this sense of connection between her and her audience which makes 7 Day Drunk an experiment that you want to be part of and Kimmings’ is more than happy to oblige. You may get drunk or even snog someone if you’re brave enough to sit in the front few rows.

Artists have long had a relationship with mind altering substances and it’s easy to conclude that anything that makes you less inhibited should help the creative process, free your mind. But the scientific aspect to 7 Day Drunk gives Kimmings’ exploration a level of cold objectivity, removing the romance, and giving things a new twist. There’s plenty of poetry and theatricality to the piece but its backbone is one of facts and figures. This gives Kimmings’ contribution to the debate an added weight. The result is a gently probing piece of scientific performance art that contributes a new perspective to what is oft-covered ground. And I mentioned there was a unicorn head, right?

At Assembly George Square until 28th August 2011

Paul Daniels: Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Written for FEST

Paul Daniels and “The woman who is restoring the economy of Scotland singlehandedly”(that’s Debbie McGee to you and me) are bringing some old-school variety charm to the Fringe. Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow is a family-friendly hour that feels like you’re settling down in front of the TV in your slippers, except that here the presenter occasionally talks to you. While his material feels slightly dated, Daniels is lightning-quick when it comes to audience interaction. In fact, he engages so much he often gets lost in his own tangents, an issue he cheerfully acknowledges.

It’s all in the best possible spirit and any jibes at audience members are done so in the most gentlemanly fashion. As such, latecomers get it in the neck but the London riots, we are told, are not to be made fun of. In the face of some newer comedians this may feel tame, but tonight’s giggling audience clearly lap it up and the old-school appeal does seem to make Daniels all the more likeable.

His magic feels fairly rudimentary (apart from the head-achingly tense finale) and when he jokes about having got it wrong he’s in danger of having us take him at his word until he reveals the trick’s winning last twist. It’s not really the magic that’s the centre of this show and it seems Daniels knows this, performing around only five sleights of hand and sensibly filling the gaps with the popular banter that has clearly drawn this eclectic and appreciative crowd.

For more information go here.