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Malcolm Hardee Award nominee James Hamilton aims to prove comedy critic Kate Copstick wrong by writing weirder

James Hamilton, yesterday, drinking it all in

At the Edinburgh Fringe last year, writer/performer/producer James Hamilton was nominated for the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality. One of the judges for the Malcolm Hardee Awards is doyenne of Fringe comedy critics Kate Copstick.

James runs a comedy sketch group called Casual Violence and, last year, their show was called Choose Death. At the time, I blogged that “I had absolutely no idea what was going on… Casual Violence could have created a new genre of ‘realistic surrealism’… Choose Death was so strange it is beyond any sane description. The show was written by James Hamilton. I think he may need psychiatric help. Though not creative help. He is doing something right. There is something very original in there. I just don’t know what the fuck it is.

“At the Edinburgh Fringe the previous year,” James told me yesterday afternoon in Soho, “Kate Copstick gave us a one-star review for our show Dildon’t. At the time, it was quite… eh… demoralising. It was our first time at the Fringe. It was a play more than a sketch show and, after her one-star review, people were turning down our flyers in the street. They’d say: No thanks, mate. I read the review in The Scotsman… Which was really tough to deal with at the time.

“But, last year, we quoted her review on the back of our flyer for Choose Death and it genuinely sold us more tickets than it had cost us the year before, because people would look at it and go Oh! That’s honest of you! which they don’t quite expect in Edinburgh in August. The word we quoted on our flyers from Copstick’s review was just the word Irritating….”

IRRITATING – ONE STAR (THE SCOTSMAN)

“A one-star review,” I said, “can be quite effective. The worst thing to get is a 2-star review. But a one-star review means there’s something odd going on. And if you can get a one-star review AND a 5-star review for the same show, it means it’s definitely worth seeing!”

“Well,” said James, “we got that in 2010. We got one 5-star review, three 4-stars and a 3 and a 1. So we almost had the full set.”

“If you get a one star review AND 5-star review,” I said, “there’s maybe something wrong with the critic who may have got out the wrong side of the bed that morning – Copstick will kill me  – or it’s the audience or the performance that particular night. Or it’s some unknowable factor. And, as you found out, a one-star review can be useable in publicity – if you are careful – especially if you get 4 and 5 star reviews too. It signals it may be a ‘Marmite’ show – people either love it or hate it with no in-between – and, certainly in Edinburgh, that’s good.

“Whatever it was,” said James, “it got that one-star review in 2010 and, when we quoted it in 2011, people seemed to think it was weirdly honest of us. A couple of people asked us if it was a requirement to put the bad reviews on the flyers!

“So, this year, we’re doing it again, but we’re using the word STUPID from Copstick’s 2010 review. On the front of the poster, we’re going to have One Star (The Scotsman) and, on the back, we’re having the one star with the words: Stupid. A waste of rather a lot of perfectly serviceable latex (The Scotsman)”

“And your show this year is…?” I asked.

A Kick in The Teeth,” James said. “We’re trying it out next Friday and Saturday – the 25th and 26th – at the Brighton Fringe.”

“It’s a sketch show?”

“I think of it more as character than sketch,” said James. “It’s the same sort of format as last year’s Choose Death show. But it’s a weirder show in some ways. There’s less Siamese Twins. There’s a character called The Poppyman who’s horrendously sinister with some really weird, quite dark, quite bizarre stuff in there. We’ve got a clockwork man character that we’re quite looking forward to trying out.

“Actually, I say there’s less Siamese Twins, but they do have a sort-of cameo in the show. It’s the only throw-back to last year’s show that we’re including.”

“And do you know what show you’ll be doing in 2013?” I asked.

“I know roughly,” James replied, “but it’s only a vague thing. I want to do a more theatrical show with more narrative. It would be based on the Roger and Charlie Nostril characters from Choose Death last year. They were the characters who lived in the mansion full of taxidermied people. Roger Nostril was the old, dying man who ordered his death bed and got a death lilo instead and Charlie’s his son who just got abuse hurled at him for most of the show.

“This year, with Kick in The Teeth, we’ve kept that structure of having five sets of characters and having them hurtle towards their fate through their own doings. But I couldn’t kill them all this year, because we did that last year and it would have felt like a re-hash. Basically, worse things happen to them than death this year.”

“So some of it’s sad again?” I asked.

“Yes. One of the big worries last year was finding the balance. Making it funny while also being quite tragic and quite unpleasant.”

“Do you,” I ask, “write comedy shows with dramatic bits or theatrical shows with funny bits?”

“They’re comedy shows with theatrical bits,” James answered. “They’re comedy shows ultimately. A lot of comedy can feel a bit throwaway. Getting a laugh out of an audience is a bit of a quick fix. It’s a great feeling for a moment, but then it passes. The thing we really wanna go for is making comedy that ekes other feelings out of people.

“My favourite stuff in Choose Death last year were the bits that made people go Oooaaa….

“Over the course of the run, we had a couple of people who said the Clown bit made them cry. It’s a silent bit where the Clown has a picture of his dead girlfriend and he takes a real girl out of the audience, puts a wig on her and makes her up and poses her to look like the dead girlfriend in the picture just so he can give her a hug.

“When I wrote it, I thought it was going to be quite creepy but, when Greg performed it, it was adorable and, from the audience during that sketch, you got as many sympathetic noises as you did laughs. And I liked that. I like the sort of comedy that makes you feel sorry for characters and worried for and by characters and has that sort of tension there as well.”

“And is weird,” I said.

“And is weird,” James Hamilton said.

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With sketch shows, it is impossible to know who will be famous in the future.

With comedy sketch shows, it is almost impossible to know which, if any, of the performers may become successful – famous, even – in the future.

I am old enough to have been stumbling around in the primeval alternative comedy mists of the last century and seen the Edinburgh Fringe show by the Cambridge Footlights group which included Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Tony Slattery. I was aware of their names because it got a lot of newspaper coverage afterwards – that’s one of the benefits of going to Oxbridge. But all I really remember, unless my memory fails me, is Stephen Fry sitting in a wing armchair wearing a smoking jacket and reading a very linguistically convoluted story from a book.

“Well,” I thought. “That’s very literate and he seems to aspire to being someone older than he is, but he’s not going to go very far with that as an act.”

I was also working at Granada TV when they made the long-forgotten sketch show Alfresco. I saw one being recorded in the studio. It starred Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Ben Elton, Robbie Coltrane and Siobhan Redmond. The writing was a bit rough-and-ready and the cast made no impact on me at all, except I remember feeling Robbie Coltrane thought a bit too much of himself and Ben Elton thought he was cock of the walk. I am sure they have changed.

Which is all a pre-amble to the fact that I have seen three sketch shows in the last three days at the Edinburgh Fringe. They may have contained the big comedy and/or drama stars of the future, but who can know for sure? Certainly not me.

I went to see The Real McGuffins’ Skitsophrenic because I had met Dan March at a couple of previous Fringes, notably when he performed his Goldrunner show about being a contestant on the TV gameshow Blockbusters when he was a kid.

I saw The Real McGuffins perform at the Fringe last year and, while they were OK and energetic – a better version of the more-publicised Pappy’s aka Pappy’s Fun Club – they were, in truth, nothing special. This year, they are something special. The scripts are sharper, the performances are even sharper and the show zips along at a tremendous pace. They have also kept and improved on a scripted interaction between the three performers which adds a semi-narrative thread – always a good thing in sketch shows which, by their nature, can be very disjointed.

This unification of their comedy sketch show is something The Durham Revue’s 33rd Annual Surprise Party! does not have. They try to paper over the unavoidable gaps between separate sketches with extremely good and instantly recognisable rock music. But choosing such good music turns out to be a mistake as the extracts are so strong it distracts from rather than unifies the various sketches. I mentally opted-out of the live show to bop-along in my head to the music between sketches, then had to opt back in to the live show. Bland music, ironically, would have been better. Or some live running link to creatively Sellotape over the gaps.

At least one of the Durham Revue team appears to have the charisma necessary to get somewhere in showbusiness in the future but (see above) who can tell?

As for Casual Violence’s Choose Death, which I saw last night, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. There were a lot of tears, a lot of shouting, several characters’ deaths, Siamese twin assassins, a clown and a serial killer who looked like Daniel Craig on acid, but what exactly was going on or why was utterly beyond me. Nothing made much sense at all but the characters seemed to believe in what was happening within their own fictional world. Casual Violence could have created a new genre of ‘realistic surrealism’. There was certainly an awful lot of shouting which seemed to work rather well. But I have no idea why.

The six performers and keyboard accompanist were uniformly good and strangely realistic while being totally OTT in a script which was from another plane of reality on another planet. The important factor was that the script seemed to make logical sense to the characters within the show. And, while played straight and getting plentiful laughs from a near-full house, there was such an element of complete surreality permeating the whole thing that I warmed to it after about ten minutes and enjoyed it thoroughly throughout – without knowing what was going on over-all. The words made sense. The sentences made sense. But what was happening had more than one layer of insanity. It had the logic of a long-term inmate in a mental asylum.

The Real McGuffins were slick, smooth and ready for television and Dan March is a star in the making.

The Durham Revue performers need another year at the Fringe but showed promise.

Casual Violence’s Choose Death was so strange it is beyond any sane description and, in a long-shot way, is the most interesting of the three. The show was written by James Hamilton. I think he may need psychiatric help. Though not creative help. He is doing something right. There is something very original in there. I just don’t know what the fuck it is.

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