Category Archives: Theatre

Edinburgh Fringe Day 7: Three naked bottoms, tears and a cunning stunt

Today, I watched three performers talking out of their arses. Hardly a new thing at the Edinburgh Fringe, you might think.

I couldn’t possibly be cheap enough to use a pun

Except this was the much-touted Wild Bore comic theatrical piece at The Traverse in which Zoe Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott perform with their naked bottoms (and occasionally with the rest of their bodies).

It is a knowingly self-referential post-modernist labyrinth of analysing and criticising critics and the performance itself with some wonderful surreal images – the sight of them running around naked and erect with their heads inside their own bottoms made me glad I never remember my own dreams and nightmares.

The self-referencing reminded me inevitably of that 1969 movie I am always banging on about in this blog – Anthony Newley’s Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? – You sit there thinking the movie is a self-indulgent mess and then, at one point, three ‘movie critics’ walk on the screen and start criticising it in detail for all the many faults you have just been thinking about. I sat through it twice when I first saw it, because I had no idea whether I liked it or not. I was still not sure after seeing it twice, but it was and is certainly addictive.

Nathan Willcock’s State of The Nathan at Moriarty’s also kept referring to itself and had a strangely straight, middle-of-the-road, middle-aged, non-Fringe audience happily sitting through and enjoying an hour of his (as he admitted to them) liberal Londoner comedy.

Daddy Kamali – indefatigably charismatic

The indefatigably charismatic Jody Kamali was pretending to run a hotel – Hotel Yes Please – in a room in the actual Apex Hotel/Sweet venue in Grassmarket where he played multiple characters, integrated the audience into the show and unusually-for-him added some genuine personal stuff into a character playing another character. Apparently last year’s Fringe show was such a happy experience that, on the final night, he celebrated with his wife and the result is that he now has a daughter.

I think he will make a good dad.

Which was something Lewis Schaffer’s dead mother told him (Lewis) in one of the 23 letters he is opening nightly in Unopened Letters From My Mother at the Counting House. As he said in this blog two days ago: “To me, the letters are full-on scary and sad. But funny for the audience.”

Lewis Schaffer reads his mother’s letter for the first time

He says he does not know why he did not open the 23 letters she sent him between 2000 and her death in 2011, some from a mental hospital.

But I do remember the late Malcolm Hardee, going through a bout of depression the like of which people would not imagine Malcolm Hardee had, telling me that he was only opening one in three of the letters he received through the post. The other two he threw away without even checking who they were from.

After tonight’s performance – well, performance is the wrong word – experience – someone said to me: “I have never seen Lewis show that sort of real emotion on stage before”.

Lewis’ shows are always one-offs. These ones almost go beyond unique, if such a thing were possible.

Which could also be said of Becky Fury’s show tonight at the Black Market. Well, she did not actually perform her prepared show but improvised 55 minutes around the audience which included a Polish social worker who came to Edinburgh for the Fringe last year and just stayed. He said he was attracted to her show title Molotov Cocktail Party because of what happened at Polish football matches.

Becky Fury – not hosting a Christian show at all

Then there was the young Spanish couple who were there despite, it seemed, not actually being able to understand any English. Becky at first persuaded them it was a Christian show in which everyone had to bare themselves and managed to get the male half of the couple to strip off.

And then there was the American girl who arrived late. She said she played the violin and sewed.

“Simultaneously?” asked Becky.

Alas no, but she then took out her sewing and continued throughout the rest of the show while listening and participating. She said she was not a performer but did busk naked in Seattle, playing the violin.

I do believe this was and is true. But who knows?

In this blog four days ago, Martha McBrier mentioned that she had received a complaint about the fact that she plays a didgeridoo during her Balamory Doubtfire show – something that women are not allowed to do in Aboriginal culture. A white sociology professor in New York had accused her of racism, sexism and subjugating an entire culture.

The story was followed up, with more details, in Bruce Dessau’s Beyond The Joke site, on the Chortle comedy site and  in The Scotsman.

Chortle carried quotes from Janet McLeod, producer of the Melbourne Comedy Festival show Aborigi-LOL, and Dane Simpson, a comedian from the Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay culture.

Martha McBrier – cunning player of religious instruments

Tonight, I got a message from Martin Walker, who told me that, during the recording of his On The Mic podcast, Martha had admitted that the whole thing was a cunning stunt.

The didgeridoo appears on her flyer/poster and makes an admittedly brief appearance in her show so I do wonder if this is a stunt planned so far in advance that it is almost a work of art in its own right.

On the other hand, allegedly offending Aboriginal didgeridoo players might not have been a stunt at all but, on seeing the reaction, Martha decided to say it was a stunt to fan the flames of publicity and edge ever closer to a Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt nomination.

Only time will tell.

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Edinburgh Fringe Day 2: Good advice on dodgy comedy stage show directors

In this blog yesterday, a comedy performer whom I did not name was complaining about the way they had been treated by their director who had just said their show being performed at the Edinburgh Fringe could be directed from London without the director coming up to Edinburgh at all. 

I know a few theatre directors and got this response from the highly-experienced and much admired Catherine Arden (who is NOT the director in question). In other words, this is good advice…


Advice from Catherine Arden, director

I was concerned to read about the performer whose director did not support him or her to bed in the show for the opening week in Edinburgh.

I served two 2-year terms on the Equity Theatre Directors’ Committee and recently attended a conference where this type of thing was discussed and strongly disapproved of. It gives professional directors a bad name and is not good for the industry!

Some suggestions for the performer:

–  If both the performer and director are Equity members, Equity can help resolve and give assistance to the performer to make contracts clearer in future.

–  There is a Fringe contract the performer might want to look at.

–  If the director is an Equity member, the performer can report this poor behaviour to Equity.

–  If the performer is an Equity member, then he or she can get further guidance on the matter and learn how to safeguard future dealings.

If neither the performer nor director are Equity members, I recommend the performer goes along to the Equity desk in Edinburgh.

Equity is running workshops at the Edinburgh Fringe which are great for professional development as well as for networking with proper professionals.

Also, Equity says…

If you are a member or student member taking part in any of the Edinburgh Festivals and need advice or support at any point please contact our local office on 0141-248-8472 or scotland@equity.org.uk

The Fringe has its Venues and Companies team for any show or venue taking part in the festival and they may also be able to help: participants@edfringe.com

Failing all that, your performer can get in touch with me as a director with Fringe experience if she wants a director who will give her the support he or she needs – and deserves! 🙂

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Between the Sheets with Polly Rae, Entrepreneuress of Burlesque…

Polly Rae, entrepreneuress of burlesque

Tomorrow night, burlesque entrepreneur (entrepreneuress?) Polly Rae is fronting the first of seven summer shows called Between The Sheets at the Underbelly’s Spiegeltent on London’s South Bank. It is her fourth year there.

“Why that title?” I asked her.

“Because it’s a show about sex. I am the host and invite everyone into my boudoir to share my fantasies and sensualities.”

“Not a one-woman show?” I asked.

“No. There are eight of us. It’s a variety-cabaret-burlesque show. We perform as an ensemble but they also have individual acts. We have circus performers, male dancers, a clown-comedienne. We’ve been refining this show with various different casts for 4 or 5 years. This is our fourth season here at the Underbelly. The core cast has remained the same.

“The main headliner is an artist called Kitty Bang Bang, a burlesque fire-breather. We call her The bad ass of burlesque, the wild child, the rocker, the whisky drinker, the whip cracker. Lilly SnatchDragon is our hilarious, glamorous clown-comedienne. And we have Beau Rocks. In her act, she explores the more erotic and sensual side of burlesque – a contemporary act with UV lighting and UV paint. Quite a saucy, futuristic act.”

“Burlesque is stripping,” I said.

“Yes,” agreed Polly. “It is absolutely stripping, pioneered in 1940s and 1950s America and, obviously, Dita Von Teese has popularised it for this generation. I’ve been doing it for about 12 years.”

“Do your parents have a problem with stripping?”

“If you define the physical act then, yes, of course, it’s stripping. But the context is different from stripping in a gentleman’s club. Burlesque is very much about theatre and old-school Variety. It has the combinations of dance, comedy, singing, dancing and the various skills we use.

“So my parents don’t mind at all; they’re very encouraging and they love it. They come to see my shows… My mum brought me up on Madonna… Madonna in the 1980s!… What kind of influence was that?

Ensemble assemble Between The Sheets

“I like to think this show is quite titillating. I like to think it is quite hot under the collar. But it’s not explicit. If there are any moments that are explicit, we soften it with humour. I think it’s very important to have humour in my shows. You’ve got to balance sexiness with wit.”

“Parents in show business?” I asked.

“Not at all. Really, my influence came from my mother bringing me up on Madonna. My dad was an architect. Being an architect was his profession but, as a hobby, he worked on Gerry Anderson TV programmes as a model maker. He worked on Stingray. One of his main shows was Terrahawks… There was a big spaceship; he designed and made that.”

“But not a performer…” I said.

“I grew up loving performance,” Polly told me, “but I didn’t go to stage school. I originally wanted to be a special effects make-up artist. That was my original dream. My dad and I used to watch horror movies – science fiction alien movies and Freddie Krueger and so on. My dad actually worked on the movie Alien.

“When I was born, he moved back up North to Preston and his movie career was over. He was supposed to go and do the second movie – Aliens – but then my mum got pregnant with me and he chose not to carry on, which I feel a bit guilty about: he might have been in Hollywood now.

“I was a beauty therapist out of school. Then I moved from Preston to London and met lots of performers and that changed my life. At 19 years old, I flew to New Orleans and worked on the cruise ships for a few years, in the Caribbean.”

“As a beautician?” I asked.

Polly Rae – “a culture-building exposure” – reddy for anything

“Yes. But what was great was I got to see performers’ lives. It was such a culture-building exposure, meeting people from all parts of the world. I made friends with a lot of the dancers and singers and started to think: Ah! This is quite interesting!

“I decided I wanted to be a Social Host – like MCs who run the games, host the karaoke or whatever – but I couldn’t get that job because I had no experience. So, long story short, I started training in dance and singing and, around 2005, I met Jo King who runs the London Academy of Burlesque.”

“2005,” I suggested, “is around the time burlesque became respectable? Stripping was seen as sleazy but burlesque was acceptable showbiz.”

“I didn’t know what burlesque was,” replied Polly. “That was in 2005. My first performance as a burlesque artist was 2006.”

“Which was,” I said, “roughly when it started to get profile in the UK.”

“Yes,” said Polly. “Dita Von Teese had started slowly, slowly chipping away at the mainstream in the 1990s but, come the early 2000s, that’s when London cabaret clubs started. Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club had a show called The Whoopee Club. Then there was a show at Cafe de Paris called The Flash Monkey and a show Lady Luck and a venue called Volupté opened.

“I started working at Volupté and at the Soho Revue Bar – formerly the Raymond Revue Bar. I jumped on the bandwagon at the perfect time. I was in there just BEFORE everyone wanted to go and see a burlesque show and I formulated a troupe of girls called The Hurly Burly Girlies.

Polly Rae and her Hurly Burly Girlies troupe went West End

“Being a burlesque artist, you have to have a gimmick and my thing was singing and I had my troupe of girls with me. There were no troupes at that time.”

“What sort of singing?” I asked. “Ethel Merman?”

“More of a pop ’80s route…”

“Madonna…?”

“Exactly! Exactly! And it worked a treat, John! I wanted to try to be different and to appeal to a wider audience. I figured: If my audience knows the music, I’m gonna get a wider crowd. We worked on musical arrangements of modern songs. We made modern songs sound old. And we did pop songs but we dressed vintage.”

“Post Busby Berkeley?”

If you got it, flaunt it!

“Yes, post Busby Berkeley, for sure. I took a lot of inspiration from Dita Von Teese in the beginning and I think her styling is late-1940s/early 1950s. I also did the whole 1950s bump ’n’ grind thing to classic music like Benny Goodman. We just sort-of mixed it all up, really.”

“So,” I said, “You developed this over time.”

“Yes. I met a gentleman called William Baker, who was Kylie Minogue’s artistic director/visual stylist for the last 25 years. I told him I wanted to make the biggest burlesque show the world – or maybe the UK and Europe – had ever seen. I wanted to create the Cirque du Soleil of burlesque shows.

“I thought at the time I just wanted a stylist: someone to help me on my way a little bit and help me improve the production values. But William said: If I’m going to come and work with you, I want to direct it and bring in my entire creative team.

“And so we created The Hurly Burly Show. It started in 2010 at the Leicester Square Theatre, then we did a season the following year at the Garrick Theatre and, the following year, a season at the Duchess Theatre. After that, we did it in Australia and South Africa. We had a good 3 or 4 years of wonderful madness.”

“Cabaret and burlesque,” I said, “are colourful, kitsch, camp and…”

“Exactly,” said Polly. “It’s diverse, it’s innovative, it’s creative and it’s so unbelievably individual. That’s what I especially love about it.”

“So where can you go now?” I asked. “You have peaked.”

“Being on a West End stage was amazing,” said Polly, “and I won’t stop saying it was the most incredible experience of my life. However, as a burlesque/cabaret artist, when you’re in the Garrick Theatre, there are two balconies and you can’t see anything because the spotlight is blinding you and I can’t connect with the audience in the same way.

Between The Sheets – summer shows

“The intimacy in the Spiegeltent is amazing. You can connect with the audience. In Between The Sheets, we are walking in the aisles, physically sitting on people, stealing their drinks. It’s almost immersive. You can see everybody’s face. I can connect.

“It’s not a West End theatre, but I’m much happier in the Spiegeltent. I feel much more at home and stronger as an artist. My goal is I want to see people react, whether I make them laugh, cry, feel turned-on. The satisfaction of seeing that achieved is amazing.”

“If you have the house lights full up, though,” I suggested, “the audience can feel threatened.”

“Yes, you have to get the balance right. It’s not about having lights up; it’s the proximity. And choosing the right people in the audience.”

“So,” I said, “upcoming, you have…?”

Between the Sheets is my summer project and I like to think we might get picked up and do other little tours here and there. But I also have a residency at The Hippodrome every Saturday night. I also manage the dancers there and do some MCing for corporate parties. And I’m getting married next year.”

“Is he is showbusiness?”

“He’s in hospitality. His name is Eric; he’s from the United States; he’s been here for five years.”

“He’s a lucky man,” I told her.

Polly and Eric

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I ask about Musical Comedy Awards but get sidetracked by exploding intestines

Tamara Cowan was the one who brought up the intestines

“So,” I said, “he now lives in Austria or wherever, but you are his representative here on earth.”

“I think my official title is Creative Director,” Tamara Cowan told me, “but it’s sort-of producing and being The Man on The Ground. I am The Man on The Ground. We do it together.”

“How,” I asked, “did the annual Musical Comedy Awards start?”

“Ed Chappel set it up on his own nine years ago, when he was at Warwick University as part of an Events Management thing. He started it with online entries then hired out the Pleasance, Islington, for the final. The first one was won by Adams & Rea (no longer together as an act).

“The next year, Ed and I were both flyering for Bound & Gagged (comedy promoters) up at the Edinburgh Fringe and he thought it would be really fun to have live heats the next year. I had just had half my intestines chopped out and I was at home recuperating. I was lying there thinking: I don’t really know what I’m going to do when I get back to London. And he texted me saying: Oh, you seem to be good at comedy/chat stuff. Do you want to come and help me with it next time? In fact, I didn’t know anything about comedy.”

“Why,” I asked, “did you need to have half your intestines out?”

“Well, it was actually only a third. I exaggerated.”

“Even so,” I said, “it still begs the question Why?

“They had twisted.”

“Isn’t that what intestines do?” I asked. “Why had they twisted?”

“I don’t know. They twisted and then they got a bit infected and the doctors had to lop a bit off. Apparently it only happens to very young babies and very old people.”

“How old were you?”

“I was 25.”

It was this or a picture of intestines – Ed Chappel publicising the Musical Comedy Awards in 2009.

“The doctors,” I asked, “never mentioned why?”

“I did loads of research and it didn’t really explain it.”

“The doctors never said exactly why they wanted to chop bits out of you?”

“They had done scans and seen it had twisted and exploded.”

“Exploded?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have trouble digesting things now?”

“No. I have to eat quite a lot of fibre to make sure I ‘go’ regularly but, basically, it holds as much as it holds and, if it has less room to hold it, it will just push it out quicker. Tell me you are not going to write about this.”

“Probably.”

“Oh dear.”

“You were in hospital…”

“Yes. As the NHS was a bit overstretched at the time, I ended up updating my own chart sometimes because no-one else was.”

“The chart thing hanging on the end of your bed?”

“Yes.”

“You updated your own chart?”

“Yes. I opened it up and saw all the pictures and it was the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Your own intestines?“

“Yes. Open. Urghh! That near-death experience put me off acting.”

“Acting?”

“I did an MA at Mountview.”

“So you were an aspiring actress?”

“I was. But that near-death experience put me off. I thought I don’t want to be an actress and then I found comedy and thought This is more fun.”

“So you had a third of your intestines out then decided to move into comedy? There’s a pun there somewhere. We just have to find it.”

“Belly laughs?”

“Mmmm…”

“Gut instinct?”

“Could be.”

“So you moved into comedy but not as a performer, despite the fact you had wanted to act.”

“Well, going to drama school put me right off wanting to go on stage. Then having a near-death experience made me want more of a tangible career.”

“Why did learning to be an actress put you off being an actress?”

“It made me quite self-conscious because you over-thought everything. And, after the near-death experience, I wanted to actually do things rather than rely on people employing me. Rather than have casting directors decide if I was going to do something, I wanted to decide myself to create stuff and do things. And I found the Musical Comedy Awards at that point. It meant I could be in charge of making something actually happen and putting on productions.”

“You wanted to be in control of your own destiny?”

“Yes.”

“So, you organise the Musical Comedy Awards annually but, the rest of the time, you are…?”

“An assistant agent. I’ve been with Hollie Ebdon for almost two years now. I used to work in corporate property, but I gave that up because it was horrible. Have you ever worked in corporate property?

“No…. Anyway, you decided you wanted to be master or mistress of your own destiny so, after having a third of your intestines out and deciding not to be an actress, you went into corporate property?”

“No. I went into theatre administration and then got accidentally found and offered a job by a cool and fun property company but then they got capital investment and it all started turning a bit horrible. Then Hollie’s thing came up and she was the first person who had given the MCAs an opportunity because she had been doing the booking for the Wilmington Arms in Rosebery Avenue where we did jam-packed musical comedy days with people like Abandoman. That was in 2010.”

“You said earlier that, when you started, you knew nothing about comedy.”

“Well, when I finished at London Metropolitan University, I went to the Edinburgh Fringe and worked with Bound & Gagged for the summer, like I said, and someone had to explain to me who Stewart Lee and Nicholas Parsons were. I really didn’t know anything about comedy.

“Then I went and got a job at the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, tearing tickets. Through that, I met Tracey Collins – Tina Turner, Tea Lady – and Charlie, who helps with the MCAs.  And this year we are magically ending up back there because there was a delay with the Underbelly. So, after ten years of not working at the Lyric, we’ve all ended up doing the Musical Comedy Awards Finals there this coming Monday.”

Everyone’s back at the Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue, this year

“That is fairly weird,” I said.

“Yes. And then Ed Chappel found this bit of paper – an obituary for his great-great uncle, who was a famous actor in the early 20th century – and his great-great uncle’s first West End production was Of Mice and Men at the Lyric Theatre.”

“So you’ve been doing the Musical Comedy Awards for eight years. Getting bored?”

“I love the variety. Musical comedians are a mixture. You get people who are basically comedians but who can play a bit of music. Then you’ve got cabaret people. Then actors who are all-rounder triple-threats: acting/singing/dancing.”

“Is it easier,” I asked, “to hide weak material if you are a musical comedian? Take (I named an act). Their material is OK but their personality is so overwhelming you almost don’t notice some of their material is weak.”

“But isn’t that the same with stand-up comics?” Tamara suggested. “It’s all in the balance. If you had someone else doing Stewart Lee’s material, it wouldn’t be as good without his stage charisma and timing. In some ways, yes, musical comedy is easier because you do have a kind of energy level that comes with playing the musical instrument, but it is harder as well because you have a lot more balls to juggle and make it click and work and get the audience to buy it.”

“There are no real musical comedy shows on TV,” I prompted.

“I think,” Tamara responded, “that a musical comedy show would work well on TV, but I don’t think they want to take a risk.”

“Maybe because it sounds expensive ,” I suggested. “Like putting on 42nd Street.”

“But,” said Tamara, “it can be very cheap. It’s usually just a… well, a white guy in his early 30s with a guitar. People get musical comedy and musicals mixed up.”

“You still have no urge to pluck a ukulele yourself?”

“No. I’m almost tone deaf. I can’t sing in tune. I can appreciate music but I can’t do it myself. I used to play the saxophone. I wasn’t too bad but it did give me an awful rash on my bottom lip and you don’t want a rash on your lips when you’re a teenager. And it is almost impossible to do musical comedy if you have something in your mouth.”

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Filed under Comedy, Humor, Humour, Music, Theatre

A meeting in a sex shop led me to tea with actor William Sebag-Montefiore.

Hell and a meeting in a sex shop brought me together with William Sebag-Montefiore.

In January last year, I wrote a blog about the shooting of a sitcom pilot called Hell, set in a sex shop.

Well, OK, it was a film set pretending to be a sex shop.

The would-be TV sitcom pilot was eventually re-titled Whipped, posted on YouTube and, at the time of writing this, has had over 365,000 hits. Another result was that, last week, I had tea at the Soho Theatre Bar with William Sebag-Montefiore. He had acted in the film.

I figured: He must be related to British historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore. How many Sebag-Montefiores can there be around? And Wikipedia said Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s great-great-uncle was an international financier who worked with the Rothschild family.

I thought: I might get a free cup of tea out of this.

And I did… but…

William told me: “We’re not really that related. Simon Sebag-Montefiore is my cousin twice removed. I have a name that sounds like I have connections but, in reality, I don’t. I was brought up in Leeds. My mum is Scottish; my dad is Canadian. My grandma is from Inchinnan in Glasgow.”

“Have you got siblings?” I asked.

“Two younger sisters. One’s at the University of Essex studying International Relations. The other is a nurse. So she saves people’s lives and I run around pretending to be someone else.”

“Are there other thespians in the family?”

“My dad’s a clinical oncologist and my mum is a Special Needs Assistant.”

“So no thespian tendencies?” I asked.

“When dad was at medical school,” William proffered, “he did all the comedy revues and used to sing a song called Praise The Colo-rectal Surgeon. And mum loved Billy Connolly.”

“Do you have any medical tendencies?” I asked.

“Well, when I was 17 and started working in a bar, I thought about being a paramedic. It might have been because I watched Casualty on TV when I was a kid. Maybe I just want to be in Casualty. In fact, I still do.”

“You wanted to be an actor?” I asked.

“I am an actor,” William said. “I did a year’s Masters at the Central School of Speech and Drama.”

“Acting is easy, isn’t it?” I asked. “You just have to pretend to be somebody else.”

“I was doing an hour-long one-man show,” said William, “which was a terrifying experience. An hour of me talking and it was not comedy. It was a play about a man made out of newspaper: The Inevitable Disappearance of Edward J Neverwhere, written by a gentleman called Igor Memic.”

“Surely,” I suggested, “doing an hour acting as someone else is not as terrifying as doing an hour of stand-up comedy as yourself?”

William with a hot tea sheath and a crushed Kit-Kat wrapper in London’s Soho Theatre Bar

“I haven’t done stand-up,” said William, “because of the autobiographical angle. I can’t find a way of expressing myself through it, because I would be doing an imitation of someone like Stewart Lee – and a poor one.”

“But you could always be a character comedian?” I suggested.

“I think the problem,” said William, “is more that there’s an hour of responsibility on me. The reason I like acting is because I like listening and responding. When I like watching actors on stage, it’s when they’re listening and reacting. When it’s live, it has to change all the time and, when there is another person there, if you lose focus for a second, the likelihood is they will stay focussed and bring you back in. But, if you are on your own…

“We were doing that terrifying one-man show in a listed building in Peckham – as part of The BasicSpace Festival – and somebody with four dogs knocked on the door saying: Someone told me I could watch the show.

Somebody with four dogs knocked…

“He was just a bit of a local oddball. I stood there, looked at him and thought: I have to acknowledge it. So I looked over at the door, looked back and had no idea where I was in the script. There is that responsibility of focus and continuation…”

“Now you are doing sketch comedy,” I said. “You seem very trendy. Sketch comedy is out of fashion, isn’t it? What’s the attraction?”

“I just think it’s silly and it’s fun. The thing that really made me love it was radio sketch comedy –  John Finnemore and his Souvenir radio programme.

“I tried to write a sketch when I was about 10 or 11 which was directly copied from a Harry Enfield sketch about someone coming round to rob a house but they were like a door-to-door salesman.

“And I did a lot of improvisation and sketch comedy at Newcastle University. I studied English Literature, then graduated from Central and went into this industry where I thought: Everyone will want me for everything and I’ll be in a Hollywood film in a year… But people soon told me: Ah! That’s not how it works and now TV only makes sitcoms with established comedians.”

“Do you consider yourself,” I asked, “to be an actor or a comedy performer?”

“I am an actor who does comedy. People have put me more in the comedy bracket which is great, because that’s the stuff I like to create.”

“And.” I said, “you are now forced to have tea with me to plug the show you are doing at the Canal Cafe Theatre in London on 7th and 8th April – Just These, Please. Will it make your fortune?”

Just These, Please foursome together – (L-R) Georgie Jones, William Sebag-Montefiore, Philippa Carson & Tom Dickson

“We won’t make money out of the show. It’s for love of the form and wanting to get our name out there. We are a comedy sketch group, but we are all writing sitcoms and stuff and having pipedreams. There’s this hope that we will be so endearing and hilarious that people will think: We need to put these guys everywhere.”

“You’re a foursome.”

“Yes. Tom Dickson and I met at Newcastle University, in a play where we were brothers with exceptionally questionable Irish accents. Now he is a trainee lawyer, so he has a real career in him. It was revealed to us that our Irish accents were questionable by one of the girls in our troupe: Philippa Carson, who’s intimidatingly talented – an award-winning film editor and actress. She went to film school; she’s an improviser. And Georgie Jones is our other member – she’s a member of the National Youth Theatre and in the poetry collective at the Roundhouse Theatre. Fundamentally, they’re just hilarious women and very talented actresses.

Just These, Please at Canal Cafe Theatre

“The group has, technically, been going for about two years. We did one show with about 30 sketches about two years ago but then did nothing. We filmed some sketches but haven’t yet released them. Since last October, we’ve written 60 new sketches for this one.”

“So is the future going to be YouTube?” I asked.

“I think so. We have about four sketches – our longest one runs maybe 5 or 6 minutes – filmed and we are waiting to find the right time to release them.”

“Which is?”

“Exactly. This is the problem with a bunch of creatives trying to do the business side of it. I would say around the summer time.

“I’m also a member of an improv group called Very Serious People who have a monthly residency at the Bridewell Theatre near Blackfriars. Maybe I like doing too many things.”

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Advice if you are a stripper or burlesque dancer: DO NOT GET ON THE FLOOR

John! There’s a new psychedelic from Brazil, but it’s not a plant! She’s an enormous naked fat lady – well she wears only tiny silver pasties and a matching tiny G-string so she seems naked – and she dances tango solo while delicately removing invisible clothing to rapturous applause which was – when I saw it – interspersed with moments of awed silence. All this concluded with a standing ovation.

(That was the start of another missive from Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent. She continued…)

I saw her – Delirious Fenix – yesterday at the Burlesque Festival in Vancouver Playhouse, the municipal theater, which used to show plays and employ actors. I was very sad when the municipal theater company was disbanded a few years ago. I thought it was a sign of the end of the world, but I had not foreseen that Delirious Fenix would perform there.

There is a clip on YouTube of her appearance on the Ferdinando TV show in Brazil.

Babe Camille 2000’s earlier ‘ass dress’

Delirious Fenix and the Emperor of Fabulous were very good, And I stood up and yelled for Camille 2000… She deserves it just for being alive, for having played a dominatrix to Iggy Pop in Miami Vice and also for wearing the costume that displayed her ass so hilariously when she was a babe!

Then there were many beautiful solo lady dancers… But WHY did almost all of them rip their gloves off in the first two seconds and end their acts humping the floor? I always used to leave my gloves on as long as possible. Otherwise you just look like an ordinary naked girl in no time.

Each act at Vancouver Playhouse had four assistants to pick up their clothing which was strewn all over the huge stage. I could tell the more professional ones because their clothes landed in the same general area…

A tables-and-tassles intermission

During the intermission, there were tables selling pasties, hair ornaments and hand-made panties. At one table, volunteers were selling courses on how to do burlesque. A young volunteer lady told me I should take an introductory course in burlesque.

“You would like it,” she told me. “It’s  for all ages.” She brandished a brochure outlining the classes available at The Vancouver Burlesque Center. The classes had titles like Discovering the Sexy You and How to Own The Stage.

I glanced at the brochure. The room was full of excited people wearing bright silly costumes and talking loudly.

“You really should try it,” the young lady said perkily. “It’s more fun than you might think.”

Camille treats Anna like Iggy (Photograph by Bazuka Joe)

I wasn’t in the mood to say that I used to be a headline act or to start explaining that I had spent fifteen solid years dancing on four continents so I didn’t really need an introduction to Stripping For Fun classes.

She looked hopelessly fresh-faced and anxious to convert me to this fun new hobby and smiled hopefully. I found myself having to shout over the surrounding conversations which were punctuated with the squealing sounds of friends admiring each other’s outfits.

“Its ALRIGHT,” I shouted. “THANK YOU BUT I DON’T NEED a brochure. I CAN’T HEAR YOU! I’M SORRY! I HAVE DIFFICULTY HEARING!”

I tried to smile kindly, waving my arms around and escaped.

The poor young girl. She had been so nice. I hope she didn’t feel too badly that she couldn’t convince the poor old deaf lady to try out a strip class.

Did I tell you that Camille 2000’s pet peeve about young strippers is when they do a ‘floor act’. She tells them in her workshops: “Do NOT get on the FLOOR!!! Get a chair. Get a prop. Get ANYTHING. But DO NOT GET ON THE FLOOR!… A STAR does not get on the floor!”

Camille 2000 is from Alabama. The way she says “on” has two syllables and sounds very pretty to me.

Oh, great… A conveyor belt broke at the airport and my flight will be delayed.

I am going to Montreal for six days. I wish it was for longer. Montreal is probably the most culturally ‘happening’ city in Canada… possibly because the rent is cheaper than any of the other major cities here – plus the immigrant mixture, good food and being a major port.

Anna Smith (left) and her group have written a book

I am going for the annual Canadian HIV/AIDS research conference. We (Dr.Dan Allman from the University of Toronto’s Della Lana School of Public Health and the Triple X Workers Solidarity Society – represented by my friends Andrew Sorfleet, Will Pritchard and me) are holding an ancillary event to premiere the short film about our ‘groundbreaking consultation’ with 50 diverse sex worker organisations from across Canada about PrEP and our various concerns about its promotion and use.

It is the project we did for the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

The sponsors of the conference are mainly big drug companies like Gilead but I noticed that one of the sponsors bears the hipster-sounding name ‘Tweed’. I wondered what Tweed does so I looked it up and it is one if Canada’s largest marijuana facilities. I don’t suppose they will be giving out samples.

Seattle’s Emperor of Fabulous

I did meet the Emperor of Fabulous last night. He is from Seattle and he is a very nice man.

He took my email address and gave me his business card and said we could take a photo together but then he scampered off because the lady ushers at the municipal theater are very fierce. I imagine most of them worked as prison guards before they were drafted into the theater.

I looked up the Emperor of Fabulous on Facebook later and saw that he did a benefit for the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP).

In the United States many sex workers, mostly women, are serving long prison sentences. Conditions are very harsh.

In Arizona a woman was left for four hours in a cage in the sun and she died of dehydration, ignored by 14 guards while she begged for water. A documentary about this incident was made, with the help of SWOP Behind Bars instigated by sex worker activists Carol Leigh and Christina Sardinia. The documentary is called No Human Involved and it was released in July 2016. It has won several awards.

The incident that prompted the film was back in 2009 but I think, if anything, the situation is now worse in the United States.

There is a trailer for the documentary online.

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BREAK A LEG! (a showbiz suggestion taken too far) – Matt Roper in New York

I’ll Say She Is

Bleary-eyed but still smiling Matt Roper, early this morning

Bleary-eyed but still smiling Matt Roper, early this morning

This morning, I was supposed to Skype English performer Matt Roper in New York at 0630 UK time (0130 New York time) to talk about the first off-Broadway preview night of I’ll Say She Is, the ‘lost’ Marx Brothers show in which he plays Chico.

Matt was not online at 0630.

At 0641 UK, I got an e-mail – “John! Problems this end! We’re at the theatre. Disaster tonight! – The ‘butler’ in the show fell and we had to dial an ambulance! I’ll be home in an hour (3am)!”

We eventually talked at 08.30 UK / 03.30 New York time.

“You look bleary-eyed,” I said.

“It’s the middle of a heat wave,” Matt told me. It was 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32C) today. It’s nearly four in the morning now and it’s 76 degrees (24C) outside!”

“What happened to the butler?” I asked.

“You’ve seen the Marx Bros films,” said Matt. “The dowager character played by Margaret Dumont has a sort of butler/footman. He broke his leg.”

“Oh, wonderful!” I said with genuine enthusiasm, thinking of the publicity potential.

“Your Satanic grin!” said Matt. “You’re loving this, John, aren’t you?”

“Well,” I admitted. “That old theatrical good-luck wish – Break a leg! – he really did take it too literally – and on the first preview night!”

(Top to bottom; L-R - (Photo by Mark X Hopkins)) Matt Walters as Zeppo, Noah Diamond as Groucho, Matt Roper as Chico, and Seth Sheldon as Harpo

(Top to bottom; L-R – Photo by Mark X Hopkins)
Matt Walters as Zeppo, Noah Diamond as Groucho, Matt Roper as Chico, and Seth Sheldon as Harpo

“I think,” said Matt, “it was when he was going off stage, coming down a step. Something like that. He slipped. It’s a big loss, because a lot of his sequences are with Harpo, because Harpo is the one who is stealing all the family silverware. We have a good understudy, but we’re going to miss this guy because his comic timing is brilliant.”

“How long will it take to mend?” I asked.

“I don’t know. The ambulance came and he was whisked away. He might be able to perform on opening night at the Connelly Theater on Thursday on crutches: we might be able to work that into the show.”

“So what,” I asked, “other than people breaking their legs, has been the most difficult thing for you?”

“Learning to play the piano for the last eight weeks. Chico had such a particular style of playing.”

“All the funny hand movements,” I agreed. “Could you play the piano ‘normally’ before?”

“A little bit. Obviously, for my Wilfredo act, I sing and write music but, when the Chico’s hands start going, that’s something completely different. If you hit the wrong key on a piano, it’s invasive, right? But it went fine tonight.”

Les Dawson: comedian & piano player extraordinary

Les Dawson: comedian & piano player extraordinary

“If you can play the piano to begin with,” I said, “it must be really difficult to play oddly. It must have been really difficult for Les Dawson to play off-key because he could actually play properly.”

“Yes,” agreed Matt (whose father George Roper was one of Granada TV’s legendary 1970s Northern Comedians) “because Les was a very accomplished pianist. I mean, before he became famous, he was making money as a pianist. He spent months in a brothel in Paris playing piano.”

“He did?” I asked.

“Yeah. I mean, Les Dawson had this great ambition to become a poet and a novelist but, back in the 1940s and 1950s, because of his working class background, he felt he couldn’t, so he ended up making a living playing piano in all sorts of places.”

“Anyway,” I said, “back to the Marx Bros.”

I’ll Say She Is website

Premiering on Thursday off-Broadway

“Well I’ll Say She Is,” said Matt, “pre-dates musical theatre as we know it. It pre-dates Show Boat. It’s a revue, really. This is the show that really made the Marx Bros. It got them off the vaudeville circuit. They had been ready to give up. They had had enough by 1923/1924. They had been going for about 15 years and had made a lot of enemies on the vaudeville circuit.”

“So it’s more of a revue than a story?” I asked.

“It has a very loose plot, which may be why it was never made into a film. It’s a series of sketches, really, with a lot of music and the chorus girls and so on. But it does have a plot. The niece of the Margaret Dumont character is a high society girl on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and there is a sequence in the show called Cinderella Backwards. She longs to be poor and in the gutter and experiencing the gritty side of life.”

“How did you,” I asked, “an Englishman, get the part of a New York Jew playing an Italian-American?”

“I was doing a gig at a supper club called Pangea, on the bill with Sabrina Chap, a singer-songwriter, and we just got chatting and she said: I’m musical directing this Marx Bros musical. We have still to cast Zeppo and Chico. So I sent an e-mail to the producers and they said: It’s funny you should write, because we have heard about you through other people. Why don’t you come in and read for us? That’s how. Just circumstance.

“Chico,” I suggested, “is possibly not as interesting as Groucho and Harpo?”

Chico Marx - interestingly naughty man

Chico Marx – interestingly naughty man

“No,” Matt disagreed, “he is very interesting. The story goes that, as a young boy, in this great immigrant city of New York, he used to defend himself from gangs by adopting accents. There were anti-Semitic attacks and so on. If he ran into an Irish gang in the Lower East Side, he would pretend to be Irish. If he ran into a gang of Italians, he would pretend to be Italian. And that was how his Italian persona developed from a young age.

“And he was a compulsive gambler. He lost ALL of his money in crap games and poker. The Marx Bros movie A Night in Casablanca was made specifically so that Chico had some money to live off.

“Somebody once asked him How much money do you think you’ve lost gambling? and his reply was Ask Harpo how much money he has made and that’s how much I’ve lost. If he saw a drop of rain on a pane of glass, he would bet on which direction the drop would run down. He was a naughty, naughty boy.”

“He was called Chico,” I said, “because he was a womaniser?”

“Yes. His wife actually spied on him and caught him with a chorus girl and his response was: I wasn’t kissing her, I was only whispering in her mouth.”

“I had better let you get to sleep,” I told Matt.

I did not say Break a leg.

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