Review: Tom Allen and Suzi Ruffell

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Salford welcomed, not one, but two rising talents on the comedy circuit in Tom Allen and Suzi Ruffell last night. With the Lowry Studio packed out the room wasn’t quite big enough for the two of them, but that in no way compromised the quality.

Knock about banter I think best describes the start of the show, with both comics making off the cuff jokes in tandem. It is clear from the outset that both possess a quick wit, and their obvious friendship helps the audience warm to them almost immediately.

With Ruffell leaving the stage momentarily, Allen introduces her to perform her solo set by starting a Mexican wave style of applause originating from the back corner. With the performance dynamic shifted, Ruffell is able to fully show off her hilarious personality.

Ruffell is from a working class family in Portsmouth, an upbringing which floods her act with fantastic material. Her charm echoes that of Danny Dyer and Micky Flanagan, but pigeon holing her like this is an injustice as she is far more versatile.

She tells stories of her family getting through tough times, but always with a refreshing positive outlook. Her buoyant attitude to life rubs off on the audience, and is a welcome contrast to the despairing outlook many comics take.

Energy and wholehearted commitment is never stifled in Ruffell’s performance; her illustration of characters is fantastic and, alongside funny quips, make excellent anecdotes.

One anecdote stood out. An encounter on Ruffell’s doorstep with a Jehovah’s Witness was always going to end up in a fiery encounter for a gay woman despite her best intentions to remain polite. It says something about Ruffell’s character however, that she managed to turn this into a humorous routine.

Ruffell is the new face of working class comedy, her humour is down to earth and instantly relatable. Her story about her free bar incident fully highlights this.

Coming out after the interval, suited and booted, Tom Allen’s confidence resonates brightly. As it should, this was very much his audience.

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The camp comic started by cleverly twisting the things straight people tend to say when first meeting a gay person.

Allen is a naturally funny stand up, his presence on stage exudes humour and every time he opens his mouth he has the audience cracking up

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His dry, yet camp style of delivery is fresh and new. His jokes, quick and sometimes subtle, match his persona brilliantly.

 

His set centres around one particular occasion at a party when he became trapped in a bathroom, but a shiny new bathroom at least. He dips in and out of this one anecdote throughout his set, which helped him wring out the humour from the dire situation.

Allen commands a room expertly and, despite his exquisite word choice in jokes, it’s his physical humour that gets the biggest laughs. Exploiting awkward humour by putting a leg up on a chair, or leaning on a table that’s slightly too low, has the audience in stitches.

Referencing previous routines from earlier in a show is common for comedians, but Allen’s throwback to past jokes goes above and beyond as he did this for Ruffell’s gags as well. It was impressive, not only because it showed he paid attention during the earlier set, but also because it helps establish both comics as a team.

Although Allen stated that he has little innuendo in his show compared to other gay comedians, there is still a degree of naughtiness. His constant assurances that his benign statements are not innuendos in fact create the innuendo to waves of laughter.

The show is a superb mix of styles with both comics bouncing off each other extremely well. The variation in material is also impressive, as it would be far easier for both comedians to simply fulfil their stereotypes.

Ruffell and Allen provide plenty of side-splitting laughs in a show that will please everyone.

4

Review: Simon Evans – In The Money

[First published on Quays News 18/02/16]

SIMON EVANS brought his latest stand up show ‘In The Money’ to the Lowry’s Quays Theatre last night.

Evans in his new tour attempts to conjure up humour from the conundrum that is economics. His aim, in addition to creating laughter, is to give the mature audience he seems to attract advice in what he declares to be a subject that no one entirely understands.

Prior to the interval however, Evans, besides explaining that even the experts don’t understand the economy, leaves his chosen theme largely untouched. He arrows off from the economy to talk about how it seems that we all get ripped off these days. In his disdained tone he then despairs at his poor old father’s past attempts at gardening along with the argument that organic veg is superior in taste. His material is then derived from his dog and his son, plus the phrase ‘polish a turd’ is had fun with, all in what turned out to be the lighter, more easily digestible part of the show.

His delivery during these more orthodox comedy subjects has a distinct and enjoyable rhythm. Evans raises a distaste for something, and then undercuts it with a one liner that’s always witty and edgy. It’s his middle-class condescending persona that really makes the jokes work, cracking his audience up repeatedly.

Striding out after the interval, Evans begins the second half of the show by chatting to his front row. Asking for names and occupations, Evans doesn’t really push the boat out in his chat but always manages to get a titter with his off the cuff responses. Evans admits himself that he’s not a social being, recognising that talking to the front row is not a strength of his, nevertheless, the two way conversation breaks the show up well.

After the knock about joking with individual audience members, Evans makes a start to his financial advice, the buzzword – investment. Property is first up on Evans’ agenda, as he takes us through his personal housing history. Do’s and don’ts, along with references to property shows are knitted together in what feels like a lecture rather than a stand-up routine. The odd clever remark earns a laugh, particularly when dealing with the economic crash of 2008, but looking round, I wouldn’t have been surprised if pens and paper sprung out to furiously note down Evans’ insights.

Evans mentions more investment wrong turns before going onto the two things, in his view, that are fool proof investments, them being cigarettes and alcohol. Acting almost like a salesman, he puts forward an argument that’s hard to turn down. It’s this alcohol routine that creates the most laughter of the night. Due to its relatability, it’s a subject that’s flogged by comedians in a range of ways, but in this show Evans manages to find a different angle. It ensures he finishes his show strongly.

Evans has a distinctive style to his performance. Condescending with his wit, but never so much to degrade his audience. In this show he deals with a wealth of dense material that only a reader of the Financial Times could follow in its entirety. Despite this, In The Money creates hearty laughter in bursts, with Evans revelling in a subject he knows well.

3

Review: Craig Campbell – Don’t Look Down

[First published on Quays News 28/05/16]

CRAIG CAMPBELL performed his show ‘Don’t Look Down’ at the Lowry in Salford last night. It’s the Canadian comic’s third tour and I went along…

Campbell, seemingly fresh from the Canadian wilderness sporting wild shoulder length hair and a grizzly beard, hit the Quays theatre, the 47-year-old as energetic as ever.

He starts the show from backstage by singing Jonny Cash, funny at first, but as the audience members exchanged glances, it was obvious it had gone on for too long. Campbell with his unique and, at times, bizarre delivery, struggled to warm up the Salford audience. Even his odd dress sense, complete with shoes displaying individual toes, couldn’t lift the room which contained a smattering of empty seats.

Momentum begins to build however, particularly with Campbell’s instantly relatable routine on his fondness of tea which received hearty laughter. Coffee is next on the menu, his anger at the closing time of British coffee shops is palpable. Next up is the pub where he shares his first experience of a boozer in Britain, an anecdote that highlights British characteristics.

His material isn’t ground breaking, but the simple observations and relatively ordinary anecdotes are brought to life by Campbell’s enthusiastic performance and some well-placed swear words. His routines are extremely physical, as he extravagantly acts out scenes from his stories. Facial expressions also add to the humour, his bearded jaw appearing detachable at times.

Throughout the show Campbell compares different cultures. An internationally renowned comedian, he’s met vastly contrasting people. Australians, Americans, Norwegians, Brits, Canadians and Russians all get their fair share of ridicule from Campbell, and at one point he concedes that he’s just a cultural bully.

Campbell also exercises his singing voice at various points throughout the show. A rendition of the gentle country swing of George Strait’s ‘All My Ex’s Live in Texas’ followed later in the show by Nazareth’s heavy rock song ‘Flight at Night’ are both given a whole hearted attempt, the latter bemusing the audience somewhat.

Campbell then breaks down the lyrics making several jokes which were well received by the audience after the crazed singing. A cheesy Canadian song by Tom Connors received the biggest laughs of the evening, the catchy tune probably playing as the soundtrack to the audience’s dreams that night, unable to get it out of their heads.

Campbell struggled interacting with the Salford audience for the majority of the show. Asking questions on numerous occasions, the crowd were reluctant to answer, acting cagey and digging in their heels. Perhaps this was due to Campbell’s scary lumberjack appearance, but it was more likely to be the lack of energy in the room which was a struggle to maintain, the laughter and interaction only coming in bursts.

The show is anything but slick, compromising of bits of material and improvisation dragged together. Little is mentioned of the title and there appears to be no flowing narrative. However, this is precisely Campbell’s character; order and structure wouldn’t sit comfortably in his act. His strength is outlandish performance, and he delivers this in spades.

3

Review: Mark Steel – Who Do I Think I Am?

[First published on Quays News 27/05/16]

MARK STEEL performed his latest comedy show ‘Who Do I Think I Am?’ at the Lowry last night. A rare stand up tour for the politically minded comedian, I was sure not to miss out…

‘Who Do I Think I Am?’ delves into questions of identity as Have I Got News For You star Mark Steel takes the audience on a quest through his family history to work out which is more significant, nature or nurture.

Steel was adopted as a baby. In the first half of the show he shares his endearment to his adoptive family. Steel always knew he was adopted, and says how he never really gave it a second thought until later in life. A picture of Mark as a baby, that he clearly holds dear, was displayed on a screen behind him. It was simply a cute photo, but later in the second half of the show it takes on greater significance.

Mark Steel at The Lowry, SalfordStories of his adoptive parents stick out as high points in the first half as he tells stories of his upbringing in south London. His character impressions and anecdotes about his dad are instantly relatable for the audience, so too his stories about his mum, referring to her as a ‘proper mum’.

The first half of the show also contains the political stand up that Mark is so well versed in. A former member of The Socialist Workers Party, a passionate rant about David Cameron is to be expected. Nothing is left behind in these rants, sometimes coming off as politically induced breakdowns. Steel also talks about the middle ground in politics shifting as previous revolutionary ideas become mainstream, and cites the acceptance of gay marriage as an example.

Steel took particular care in choosing the music during the interval, playing songs with a similar title to that of his show, including tracks by The Who, ACDC and Beenie Man among others. After proudly pointing this out, Steel slips into another cascading rant, starting with the difficulty of constructing this playlist on iTunes then reeling off his hatred of technology. Probably getting the biggest laughs of the night, this routine struck a chord with the audience.

The story of Steels biological family then follows on in the second half, however, politics is sometimes dragged back, not necessarily fitting with the theme. His political material is tried and tested, guaranteed to get laughs, but it muddies the water of the sincere, sad, and sometimes astonishing narrative that flows through the show.

Despite this, Steel’s journey into finding his family history is as enthralling as it is funny. At some points hard to believe, Steel is blessed with material to the guaranteed envy of other comics. His biological mother’s side of the story is quite sweet, but also littered with sadness as the reasons for why Steel was given away arise.

The life story of Steels father, revealed as an Egyptian Jew, is in total contrast. It’s here where Steel plays around with ideas of nature against nurture with revelations about his father matching up to Steel’s character. Laughs come with ease, but nothing hysterical.

As the story ends Steel concludes that he still doesn’t really know who he is, and the question of nature or nurture is left for the audience to ponder. There is a feeling of admiration from his audience, perhaps sharing in such detail allows Steel to appear relatable and genuine.

A rousing round of applause with a cheeky smile from Steel signifies an encore. A little light hearted to and fro with the audience, along with an anecdote about a ludicrous story from a local newspaper wraps up the show, but doesn’t necessarily leave the audience giggling in the car journey home. Nevertheless, Steel’s show is a fascinating insight into his extraordinary family with plenty of laughs along the way.

4

Stephen Bailey: Should’ve been a popstar

[First published on Quays News 17/03/16] CdqLGpCWEAAuRWa

UP-AND-COMING comedian Stephen Bailey performed his stand up showShould’ve been a popstar’ to a sold out crowd in the Lowry’s studio. I was in the audience to see the young comic…

Taking a break from supporting popular Canadian comedian Katherine Ryan, Stephen Bailey performed his Edinburgh Fringe show to his native Manchester crowd. He’s camp and unapologetically naughty, and doesn’t withhold anything in a show that would traumatise those clinging on to any conservative views.

Bailey’s cheeky demeanour, complete with a bow tie, is immediately obvious. He starts by asking the guys and then the girls to give him a shout, as well as questioning whether there were any gays in, each time following the jeers with a neat little joke. Bailey continues to throw questions at the audience throughout the show to help him shift between topics. The audience involvement helped to warm up the room at the start, but did become tiresome as the show progressed.

 

Interaction with individuals in the audience is also a regular feature of the show and, in the relatively small space, worked well to produce some great unique moments to the night. First he spoke to a guy he’d met at a previous gig, but Bailey had no interest in idle chit-chat, jumping straight to outright flirting. Revisiting him throughout the show, the flirting continued, ending in an odd finish in which the audience member was bearing his bare torso on stage. I think it is safe to say this split the audience somewhat – I certainly wasn’t the one wolf whistling.

Before that however, there was more fun to be had with the front row. Bailey went on to mistake a mother and son for a couple, the results were hilariously awkward and highlighted the beauty of spontaneous comedy.

Despite large chunks of the show consisting of improvisation, there is also some strong prepared material. Bailey states that the show revolves around confidence, taking us through his time at school and how, despite his curly ginger hair and speech impediments, he has blossomed into a confident performer, which is undoubted.

He draws musings and anecdotes from family, with the story of him coming out as well as constantly poking fun at his mum. The jokes are funny, but made more so with the revelation that his mum was in the audience that particular night. Bailey also had more audience support with some of his friends enjoying the show. Unsurprisingly he chose to pick on them, one girl becoming the butt of a joke about entering a date’s house rather inappropriately.

Dating and relationships are other subjects tackled in the show. Bailey, trying his luck with internet dating, reveals funny messages he’d received through various dating apps. His ex is also brought up, as he discusses angry texts he’d sent. Nothing is ground breaking, but his charm brings material to life, creating rolling laughter.

Bailey’s persona is unmistakably camp, but unique enough as not to encourage comparisons with fellow comedians that also base their performance on their homosexuality. He creates a buzz whilst on stage, with the energy allowing his jokes to evoke cascades of laughter. However, the rhythm of performance is not distinct enough, with Bailey sometimes talking over the laughter and never really building up to a final punchline for his anecdotes or jokes.

Bailey’s show certainly splits opinion. Smutty, rude, perhaps inappropriate, but that is irrelevant because his jokes, with his delivery, result in hilarity for the duration of his hour set. He pushes the boundaries, the humour created from the taboo nature of his material. If you want to be shocked into laughing, then Stephen Bailey will have you in stitches with nothing but a nonchalant comment on something far too crude to publish here.

4

 

Review: Mark Thomas – Trespass

[First published on Quays News 12/05/16]

COMEDIAN and political activist Mark Thomas performed his latest show Trespass at the Lowry theatre this week and had an extra surprise for the audience, as afterwards he took everyone outside to rebel against the recent public order placed on Salford Quays.

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In his latest tour comedian, activist and journalist Thomas yet again reveals his gutsy determination to showing utter disregard to any rule he sees as unjust, unfair or simply stupid. During the show he didn’t just talk about his many stunts but actually performed one, inviting his audience to join him in protest against the council’s decision to impose a public order banning swearing in Salford Quays.

Before the humorous rebellion however, Thomas performs both halves of a tightly packed two hour show. He warns of his foul mouth before starting, then declaring his political stance including his adoration for Jeremy Corbyn. A brutal but hilarious attack on the Prime Minister then follows. Coming out so strong, Thomas revs up the audience early, receiving back to back laughter and setting the tone for the rest of the show.

Thomas goes on to list things he takes issue with, giving the audience a clear picture of his social views that involve love of the city, disregard for big business, hate of the countryside and a scathing view of estate agents. And lo and behold, an estate agent was in the front row, but Thomas was never going to back track, advising the audience member to ‘get a proper job’.

As the interval approached Thomas hinted at the stunt that would later ensue, as well as declaring that he’d had little badges made for every audience member, reading  f*** the swearing ban, again a little protest to the council’s ban on foul language.

The second half featured Thomas proudly brandishing his latest book which was based on his previous tour 100 Acts of Minor Dissent. Prior to his old tour he’d pledged to commit one hundred small acts of rebellion against councils, the government, large corporations, political parties and virtually any unjust authority figure. The examples picked from the book were brought to life by Thomas through a range of voices and impressions. His enthusiasm for activism was evident.

As Thomas walked us through more of his stunts, he made use of a screen behind him, putting up photos of his antics. His protests are simple, but always funny, and bring to light some important issues. Protests against bans on the homeless sleeping rough is an incredibly worthy cause, but then again a ban on writing on the pavement in chalk may not be as much as a social discrepancy. However, rebelling by covering a whole street in the words ‘I must not chalk the pavement’, hilarious.

With his material so unique, Thomas’ stand up is refreshing. His performance really brings his activism to life. At times his delivery is almost poetic as he articulates his anecdotes with a dramatic intensity. There is never energy lacking in the show, with Thomas moving ideas on quickly as he reals off his material at a rapid rate.

The highlight of the show was saved until the end. With the council’s recent ban on use of foul language at Salford Quays, it was the perfect scenario for one of Thomas’ stunts. Before heading outside Thomas reeled off a list of 450 swear words to huge laughter. Then, with the help of the Yorkshire based Commoners Choir, he sang swear words to the tune of Frere Jacques. A large swear box had been built with Thomas calling for donations that would aim to cover the costs of the first person that would be fined. It was a typical act of Mark Thomas rebellion that had everyone in stitches.

The show is an inspirational mix of anecdotes and rants that are always topped with a clever quip. Thomas’ performance is wholehearted and never lacking in effort. Thomas really does recognise that comedy is a two way process with the audience and encourages them to get involved in his stunts. He leaves his audience feeling empowered as well as amused.

4

Review: Steve Hall – Zebra

[First published on Quays News 15/02/16]

 STEVE Hall performed his new stand up show ‘Zebra’ in the Lowry’s intimate studio venue last night.

Member of the now defunct sketch trio Klang and contributing writer for BBC’s Russell Howard’s Good News, Hall’s solo comedy career has been on the back burner for some time. He has returned to stand up by touring his Edinburgh fringe show ‘Zebra’, which is all about the unexpected perks in life.

Before delving into his anecdotes, Hall gets a gauge of his audience in terms of knowledge of his previous work, and, on this Valentines evening, the couples that are celebrating, displaying genuine gratitude for them turning up.

The title of his show refers to a saying from his childhood: “If you hear hooves, expect horses, not zebras.” It means that the worst case scenario is unlikely, therefore you shouldn’t expect it. Dissecting the phrase he flips it, saying the ‘zebras’ in life are actually surprising perks in among the mundane horses. It turns out to be a pleasant theme for a comedy show.

Hall has recently become a father. This unsurprisingly makes up a large chunk of material in his show, as it’s easy to see how a new born can throw up numerous ‘zebras’. Veering away from this idea briefly, Hall first recalls his student days, talking about how drinking to excess caused him to have memory blackouts, with embarrassing results come morning. It’s a tight routine that is a definite high point in the show.

Many years after university, Hall tells how his drunken activities now are as peculiar as ever, these days surfing crowdfunding websites after a drinking session. This sets up a lengthy but rewarding anecdote. He explains that whilst boozed up he had turned to people over the internet to edit sentimental black and white photos from his childhood. The large blown up photos, which picture him meeting the muppets as a three-year-old, are proudly paraded around the room by Hall. The new edits, some colour corrected, others turned into paintings, are the subject of strong laughter.

It’s a routine full of character, and a far cry from a usual stand up set. It offers a sweet insight into Hall’s blissful memories and relationship with his father, elaborating on how that has in turn influenced his outlook towards his daughter. It doesn’t contain jokes as such, but it’s funny in its warmth and charm. Much like the theme of the show, Hall pulls out an unexpected zebra.

There’s not much in the way of improvisation. For a confident comic in a small venue, it was unusual to see him interact one on one with an audience member only once. However, the crowd didn’t offer an opportunity for him to dive in as heckles were non-existent, perhaps due to the polite nature Hall exudes.

The audience is never grabbed by a joke, but ripples of laughter frequently sweep the room. Admitting himself that he has a monotone voice, Hall’s material, despite being strong, was standing alone, needing a more unique delivery to create cascades of laughter. His well-mannered demeanour, complete with little cursing, is pleasant, but lacked energy to rev up the audience.

Hall’s story telling offers a delightful evening filled with an array of light heated anecdotes. Zebra may not have the audience in stitches, but its undeniable charm amuses to create a long lasting smile.