Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Greatest Comedy of All Time?

According to me, that is. Anyway, I thought I'd put together a list of my favourite funny movies. Doing so made me realise how wide our conceptions of comedy are. Some of the following are outright rib ticklers . . . others are profound works of art. All, in their way, are very funny, and moved me to list them here.

Modern Times

Charlie Chaplin's most brilliant and ambitious movie. Tender, hurt and hilarious, this ranks among the greatest expressions of the human spirit.

Sons of the Desert

Stan and Ollie in a right royal romp. This could as easily been one of their other movies, such as Way out West, or A Chump at Oxford. Every time I watch these two, I am astonished by their timing, skill and command of the camera. Brilliant.

The Quiet Man

A lovely movie, with great characters and laughs throughout.

Sorority Boys

Yes, Sorority Boys. The gender bending comedy is a one-off fiesta of fun, with brilliant acting all round. For ninety minutes of guaranteed laughter, this is up there with the best. And it's not as shallow as it looks - some nice thematic currents throughout, and a genuinely moving sub-narrative. Please, boys and girls - do it again.

Pee Wee's Big Adventure

I know you are, but what am I? A work of supreme, unmatched lunacy. Paul Reubens, we thank you.

The Naked Civil Servant

A uniquely poignant and powerful movie about the late Quentin Crisp. John Hurt is mesmerising as the great man. In the spirit of its subject, the movie flirts with boundaries - in this case those between comedy and serious drama. The result is magical.

Gregory's Girl

Scottish comedy, which gets to the heart of growing up. Haven't we all done horizontal dancing?

La Cage aux Folles

Gay and glorious, this story of a young man introducing his fiancee to his gay father and his outrageous partner is one of those rare movies, which moves and delights throughout. I utterly love this sharp, tender sit com.

Be Cool

A joyously weird movie, which sucks you in and delights throughout. Dwayne Johnson - better known as "The Rock" - should have received an Oscar for his performance.


No, not that Switch - the boring one about the sperm sample being swapped - but the one where a misogynist yuppie wakes up as the stunning Ellen Barkin. Said Barkin is superb as the man trapped in a uberbabe body, and - again - the themes run deep.

Shallow Hal

A big fat hit, for Jack Black and co. Gwyneth Paltrow steals the show with her self conscious overweight mannerisms.

The School of Rock

Terrific showcase for the talents of Jack Black. Funny and moving throughout - and the music is great. Hey, that's twelve on the list. Aaarr now. Well, I might as do thirteen . . make it a baker's dozen.

This is Spinal Tap

The original and greatest rockumentary of them all. Lick my Love Pump. Yeah, baby.

Forgetting Sara Marshall

A sunny, sexy romp about heartache and redemption in Hawaii. This movie really has everything. All the cast are excellent, but the standout performance is by Russell Brand.

White Chicks

A double switch! The Wayans brothers manage both race and sex changes, and the result is mayhem. Extremely funny throughout, with Terry Crews (above) putting in one of my favourite comedic acting performances ever. If you haven't watched it, you have a treat waiting for you.

So these are my current faves. So what have I learned here? Well, I have learned that I like comedies that subvert gender boundaries, and in the last example ethnic boundaries as well. Perhaps, that's how comedy works for me. There are other movies that could and perhaps should have gone in there . . , The Life of Brian, Groundhog Day, There's Something About Mary, As Good as it Gets, Withnail and I  . . . all these are worth watching and rewatching. However, these are my top ten . . I mean fifteen. Hope you like them  - and if you haven't seen Sorority Boys yet, well . . .

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Review: The Ripper Files! Key Theatre, Peterborough, 19th October 2013

The marvelously named Rumpus Theatre Company does a splendid job recreating the feel of a turn of century public lecture about those awful Ripper murders of 1888. The speaker is none other than the genial Charles Lestrange, an ex-police inspector who worked on the shocking events in Whitechapel. Part talk, part re-enactment, part music hall performance, this is a rumbustious and highly enjoyable production, which has the audience chuckling, oohing, and literally gasping at the end, with the final clever twist of the knife. 

From clearing his throat, David Gilbrook has the audience in the palm of his hand, as he takes us on detailed tours of the Whitechapel streets at night. Ably backed up by Mark Homer and Jennifer Biddall, Gilbrook puts on a public lecture like no other, bringing to life the characters and events that marked one of the darkest periods in British crime history. Mark Homer plays the many shady suspects with wit and mischief - effortlessly shifting from one to the other with a change of hat, or different stance. Jennifer Biddall, meanwhile, plays a series of brassy street women, like victims Mary Jane Kelly and Annie Chapman, with skill and humour. It is amazing that three people on a near-empty stage can weave a world so convincingly. At times, I could hear the boozy hubbub from the pubs, and footsteps echoing down dark alleyways. Beyond the play's atmospherics and dark humour, however, I was left feeling disturbed that at the height of the British Empire, the poverty in its capital forced thousands of women to engage in such desperate, disease-ridden, dangerous ways to make a living. 
Written and directed by John Goodrum, the play has some clever, post-modern moments, such as when Inspector Lestrange tries his hand at acting, and does rather well at it. The finale is a nice double whammy, which suddenly engages the audience in an unexpected way. 
So, bravo to David Gilbrook, Mark Homer and Jennifer Biddall . . and of course writer and director John Goodrum. The Rumpus Theatre production of The Ripper Files is a darkly comic little masterpiece, which leaves you with a crooked smile on your face. Highly recommended. 

The Ripper Files! can be seen at: 

Thur 24th & Fri 25th October 2013, Civic Theatre, Chelmsford, Essex

Mon 28th &Tue 29th October 2013, The Camberley Theatre, Camberley, Surrey

Tue 5th to Sat 9th November, Devonshire Park Theatre, Compton Street, Eastbourne

Monday, October 7, 2013

Review: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Key Theatre, Peterborough, 2nd October 2013

Feeling a bit low? Lost your mojo? Then I recommend you catch a cheery performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor by the Creative Cow touring rep theatre company. A good test of an acting troupe is how well it responds to a poor turnout in a matinee. This troupe was faced with a poor turnout at a matinee, with an audience of pensioners, in Peterborough on a rainy Wednesday in October. Not particularly promising. However, from Jack Hulland's first chuckle as the corpulent Falstaff you knew the players were up for it. Indeed what proceeded was one of most enjoyable performances I have ever seen.

Before the lights dimmed and that first chuckle echoed around the theatre, a nice old lady three empty seats away - who obviously knew her onions - announced that she had seen the production in Chesterfield, and pronounced it "brilliant." Chatting with director, Amanda Knott, after that performance, she had asked the whereabouts of the next date - and so she was here, having traveled to Peterborough on her own to see it again, walking stick and all. Any play attracting septuagenarian groupies is a very good sign.

The old lady was right. This is one of those rare productions where everybody involved in the play is terrific. Merry Wives is a tricky play to pull off. Too little verve, and much of the fun is lost. Too much, and it easily slips into clownish pastiche. The Creative Cow ensemble  pitched it just right, imbuing the characters with light authenticity, without rendering them cartoonish.

If you have not seen Merry Wives, it is a sexy sit com, where events orbit around the colossal figure of Sir John Falstaff. The old soldier had previously appeared in Henry IV pts 1 and 2, as the young Prince Hal's bawdy drinking associate at the Boar's Head Tavern. There he might have rested on his laurels but for Queen Elizabeth, who loved the character so much she ordered a full revival. In Merry Wives, Falstaff roars back to life in glorious fashion for two riotous hours, but the laughs echoing at the end are the last we hear from him. In the later play when Prince Hal is all grown up as Henry V, Shakespeare kills Falstaff off, albeit with all due mourning and honours. The canny Bard was obviously pre-empting any clamour for a Falstaff IV, even by royal appointment.

The Bard was probably right to do this, as Sir John Falstaff is almost too dominant, too popular . . . too much. Whereas everybody enjoys the jolly bawd, the play is much more than him, and the themes are serious. Merry Wives is actually an incisive examination of the power of women - a feminist farce, critiquing male power, arrogance and stupidity. No wonder the ball-busting Virgin Queen loved it so much. Falstaff and female empowerment? This must have ticked all of Bess's boxes.

The tricky bit for a director is to allow Falstaff free rein, without him dominating the proceedings and obscuring the themes. Jack Hulland's performance as the Knight was perfectly pitched in this respect- big chested, big stomached, big voiced, but without going over the top. Perhaps the best aspect of Hulland's performance was the way he laced the bravado with vulnerability, and hinted at a rather lost person inside. Hulland thus cleverly imbued this roaring braggart with a heart, so much that I wish  the Bard had not called time on him. Falstaff IV would be something worth watching - if played by Jack Hulland.

The other actors were wonderful in different ways. Katherine Senior gave a superb, sharp, performance throughout. With a West Country burr, she played Mistress Quickly with wit, wisdom and mischief. As her other character, Mistress Page (one of the two main Merry Wives), she played a middle class, clever woman with such energy and fun, I smiled all the way through it. Katherine Senior is a very talented actress, and it was a thrill to sit through a performance of this calibre.

The other Merry Wife, Mistress Ford, was played beautifully by the Maia Gibbons. Ms Gibbons recently tweeted how excited she was to be performing in this play, and this enthusiasm shone through the cheerful machinations. With every scheme and giggle Maia Gibbons brought sunshine to a rainy day in Peterborough. As with Katherine Senior, she played two roles, and her portrayal of the young, headstrong Anne Page defying her parents in love - and succeeding - was terrific.

With Falstaff and two clever Merry Wives on stage, you would think that the other actors might not get a look in. Far from it, Sean Aydon played not one but four roles, and did so entertainingly in each case. I particularly liked his rendition of Simple, which showed great comic timing, with little knowing glances at the audience. The two husbands were played by Jack Wharrier as Ford, and Jonathan Parish as Page. Both were excellent, with Jack Wharrier eliciting spontaneous applause for his engaging, quick-witted delivery.

As you may have noticed, I only write about performances I actually like. Creative Cow's Merry Wives is among the best I have ever seen. Inventive, funny, skillful, incisive, Amanda Knox and the fine actors deserve your support, and I recommend you catch one of the remaining shows if you can. When Katherine Senior flicks you a mischievous glance, you will smile and thank your lucky stars you did.

The Merry Wives of Windsor can still be seen at the following venues: 

Tues 15th October, Rosemary Branch Theatre, Islington, 7.30pm

Thurs 17 -Sat 19th October, Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Thurs at 7:45pm 
Fri and Sat at 8.00pm, (Mats Thurs and Sat at 2:30pm)

Thurs 24th - Sat 26th October, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne
7.45pm (mat weds & sat 2.30pm)

Tues 29th October, Buxton Opera House, 7:30pm

Thurs 31st October- Sat 2nd November
New Theatre, Exeter, 7.30pm (sat mat 2pm)

Sun 3rd November
The Regal Theatre, Minehead 7:30pm