Yesterday afternoon, I went to a Quarter Final of this year’s Musical Comedy Awards, which had 12 contestants performing. The Semi-Finals and Final are yet to come.
The Awards have been running eight years and I had not been aware of them. Which demonstrates what I know about anything.
I had seen two previous Musical Comedy Awards heats and now this Quarter Final and the strangest thing to me was that there was not one duff, sub-standard act in any of them. Genuinely surprised me.
As well as seeing these three Musical Comedy Awards shows in the last few weeks I have seen three other talent shows and it just reminds me how impossible it is to spot at an early stage who will succeed in years to come.
Some average or below-average acts develop quickly or slowly into wonderful acts. Some really talented, stand-out acts never get anywhere. You might as well toss a coin.
So the old cliché that “everyone who took part is a winner” is sort-of true.
Getting to the knock-out stage of any serious competition is something. After that, the rest is persistence and/or pure luck. No-one can really spot who will succeed.
Some brilliant performers self-destruct. A lot of them. I have seen it happen. Repeatedly. It is in the nature of talent. Often, average acts succeed because they are simply more persistent and more reliable.
The Malcolm Hardee Awards, with ‘Million’ award in middle
The increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe, of course, are no exception to this You Can Never Be Certain rule.
But our ‘Act Most Likely To Make a Million Quid Award’ is, I suspect, likely to have a very high success rate. The winners so far have been:
A couple of weeks ago, I saw (again) Laurence Owen’s marvellous Cinemusical show and – my God! – we were absolutely right to give him the award.
Musical Comedy may be a rising genre. Let us hope so. There certainly needs to be something to liven up samey comedy club shows which have mostly become a procession of perfectly acceptable but unexceptional comedy clones spouting perfectly acceptable but unexceptional straight stand-up material. Or open mic shows with wildly variable acts mostly performing to other performers and no genuine audience.
Alternative Musical Comedy’s day may be coming. There is a video for Laurence Owen’s superb song Empoweredon YouTube.
As is a video of journalist and ’new’ act Ariane Sherine’s Hitler Moustache – a song with which she wowed the increasingly prestigious Grouchy Club Live audience last week on only her sixth live performance (if you ignore her brief period treading the boards 13 years ago).
This could be the dawning of the age of Alternative Musical Comedy.
Alice Fraser: Savage
Everything you expect a confessional Fringe comedy show to be. Laughs and tears and death and sincerity.
Cheekykita & Mr Dinner: Dead Ghost Star
Everything you expect a surreal Fringe show to be. Laughs and large white spheroid heads and things you crack open to wave about.
Richard Gadd: Waiting For Gaddot
Everything you expect a Richard Gadd Fringe show to be. Funny, surreal and he uses a baseball bat to smash things. I will be interested to see how ‘proper’ reviewers attempt to describe this show, as it cannot be described without ruining the basic premise. But the clue is in the title. It is a solo show with Richard Gadd, Ed Aczel, Ricky Grover, Ian Smith and Ben Target. I have seen this idea done before but never written with such detail. And Samuel Beckett was not angling for a TV comedy series. The audience was very happy. I was with the audience.
The son of Max Headroom & Leslie Crowther
Al Porter: Al Porter Is Yours
The only people standing between (amazingly only 22-year-old) Al Porter and massive mainstream TV success are Alan Carr and Graham Norton. Camp and camp Irishmen are seen as a one-per-TV-channel niche. But calling Al Porter gay and Irish is a bit like calling the bombing of Hiroshima a slight popping sound. He is like the bastard son of Max Headroom and Leslie Crowther on speed spewing out what, in the past, would have been called filth to an adoring audience. Strangely old-fashioned and thoroughly modern. There must have been 4-5 laughs per minute for a whole hour with shrieks and belly-laughs from women, men, young, old, straight and gay. He appealed to them all.
Lindsay Sharman: The Madame Magenta Big Live Podcast Show Extravaganza
(Not in the Fringe Programme and not a podcast.) This charisma-fuelled show allegedly tells the true story of Christianity and is hosted in character as OTT-turbaned Madame Magenta. But just sit back and enjoy a comedy character romp from a lover of the English language who I suspect may end up a successful novelist (she has already written two). The audience yesterday afternoon included five Norwegians only two of whom, by the look of it, could speak English. The two who understood English laughed like Norwegian maelstroms (ie more actively than drains). The other three looked stunned, as well they might. I loved it.
This man was married in Disney World
Laurence Owen: Cinemusical
This show directly precedes Lindsay Sharman’s at the Voodoo Rooms. Laurence Owen is Lindsay’s husband. They married this year in Disney World.
Cinemusical is one man singing comic songs about the movies. But the phrase ‘comic songs’ is nowhere near a realistic description of these brilliantly composed and lyriced multi-layered showstoppers.
He had a room full to overflowing yesterday – his first show. So the word-of-mouth must have got around about his songs and his performance before he even arrived. As much as anything is certain (which nothing is) Laurence Owen is a sure-fire cert for success in the show business. Either writing musicals for London’s West End or Broadway or (with less personal fame but more money) Hollywood. Cinemusical, as performed by Laurence Owen,is one of the best shows I have seen in 30 years of going to the Fringe.
“It is absurdly detailed,” said Laurence, “but I didn’t write it and I don’t know who did. There is information on there that I feel only my mum would know and I have asked her and it’s not her. It’s maybe a little frightening.”
“You’ll be writing a hit Christmas song next,” I said.
“I did write one two years ago,” laughed Laurence. “It was a fairly cynical experiment – to see if you could write ANY Christmas song and then release it on all the channels at Christmas and get it picked up.”
“And the answer is?” I asked.
Mr Lawrence’s highly original album: Lullabies of Pervland
“No. Not really,” said Laurence. “But I quite like it. It’s a cross between Bing Crosby and Paul McCartney. Christmas songs are all that jingle bells, sleigh bells rhythm aren’t they? My song was called called Kith and Kin and I shoved it onto the end of my Lullabies of Pervland album.”
“What was it about?” I asked.
“A Quasimodo-esque hideous evil twin who lives in an attic, watching the family from the rafters, looking down, wishing one day he might be invited to sit at the Christmas table. It’s very sad.”
“Are you sure,” I asked, “that you had your finger on the genre here?”
“Maybe that’s why it never took off,” agreed Laurence.
“Cinemusical,” said Laurence, “which everyone keeps mis-hearing as Silly Musical, which I don’t mind. But it got introduced the other day as Cinnamon Musical, which I’m not so keen on. It makes it sound even camper than it actually is.
“It’s essentially a one-man musical… a sort of adventure story that consists of music from lots of different genres and is performed by me in the guise of various stock characters.”
“So there’s not one Laurence Owen presenting it?”
“No, no. I appear at the beginning to explain what I’m going to do because, at the first preview, I didn’t do that – just launched straight into it – and no-one knew what was going on. They sort-of enjoyed it but looked quite confused for the first half.”
“What’s not to understand?” I said. “It’s a man singing songs.”
“Yes,” said Laurence, “but I play five different characters in total, plus myself at the beginning. The first is the Disney character – the only thing I’ve kept from last year..”
“That’s the song,” I checked, “where you analyse the limited career potential for females in Disney movies?”
A photograph of the wrong Laurence Owen (Photo: Jerry Cooke)
“Yes. So she begrudgingly resigns herself to being an evil queen on the grounds that it’s the only appealing option. But there is also the bird character she talks to in that song who is now also a character in his own right. The five characters each have a problem, basically, with the limitations of their genre. That’s the framework of the show.
“The characters have a main song each and, in each of those songs, they establish they’re not happy within the rules of their genre.
“The Disney princess character just wants a normal working business life because she’s ambitious and is fed up because she’s got to either become an amicable fairy godmother or die or become evil. The bird is annoyed because he’s only ever allowed to play novelty sidekicks. So, in his song, he’s campaigning for more lead roles for avian Americans. And so on with each character…
“It all ended up, rather by accident, a bit more issues-based than I had intended. But I quite like that. It’s sort-of got a serious point… ish. And they end up quoting Gandhi…”
“Gandhi?” I asked.
“Yeah. Well, it’s actually a fake Gandhi quote: Be the change you want to see. It’s a quote often attributed to Gandhi, but I think it’s like Elementary, my dear Watson – it was never actually said.”
Laurence recently married comedy performer Lindsay Sharman at Disney World in Florida.
Laurence and Lindsay have a marriage made in Disney World
“I managed to go through our entire Disney wedding,” said Laurence, “without telling anybody I had written a Disney parody. I think I told our wedding planner that I was a composer, but never mentioned Disney. My dad kept trying to tell people and I was quite embarrassed. Maybe I should have let him.”
“The Golem was at the Young Vic, “ said Laurence, “then went to the Trafalgar Studios in London and has been to China and Russia. I don’t know where they are now – maybe Taiwan. They’re touring it all over the place.”
“And after Edinburgh…?” I asked.
Krazy Kat – coming back to a screen with re-scored music
“Well, last year Paul Barritt, the animator, made a load of short films loosely inspired by Krazy Kat– a pre-Tom and Jerry American comic strip about a cat and a mouse. He showed these films in Germany last year accompanied by a very very serious German new music, high Art, experimental orchestra.
“It worked well, but that orchestra are very expensive. When Paul was approached by David Byrne this summer for the Meltdown Festival on the South Bank, Krazy Kat was just too expensive. But then he thought – slightly too late for Meltdown – Why don’t I just get Laurence to do a new score for four players?”
I suggested: “Laurence should have thought of Laurence doing that.”
“I wouldn’t have presumed to ask,” said Laurence. “But we are now going to do that – 90 minutes of film with a live score – after the Fringe.”
A very well-produced video of Laurence’s showstopping Disney parody Empowered is on YouTube:
Not normal actor-turned-comedian-turned-composer-singer
Last night, a well-known agency staged a ’comedy showcase’ of some of their acts. There were around ten acts.
With the exception of one-and-a-half acts, it was a laughter-free zone.
They were actors and actresses showcasing their acting talent without interruption by humour. They were not comedians.
The result of actors trying to be comedians to ‘fill-in’ before they get ‘proper’ acting jobs is almost always a terrible, humorless dog’s dinner. It is usually a Pyrrhic victory of performance skills over comedy.
Which is why Laurence Owen is a joy to behold. His show Lullabies of Pervland has a humdinger of a song about how women’s roles in Disney movies are defined and limited – it has wonderfully complex and intelligent lyrics performed by Laurence to a perfect pastiche of the whole gamut of Disneyesque tunes. He acts as four characters in the song, including a wiseguy bird from, it seems, the Bronx. A wondrous blend of acting, singing, composition and comedy.
“Disney women don’t have a huge amount going for them after a certain point,” Laurence explained to me. “Their career options are limited and there’s always at least one dead parent – usually the mum – which leaves these young characters flailing and alone so they can have scary adventures. The Lion King is Hamlet with lions.”
“The thing is,” I said, “you act your Disney pastiche song so well.”
“Well, when I was little,” said Laurence, “I used to be a kid actor. I did various bits and bobs. I was in a film called Wilde with Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde.”
“Heavens!” I said. “You weren’t the one who got buggered?”
“No,” said Laurence. “That was Jude Law. I played Stephen Fry’s son.”
Laurence Owen – not Harry Potter
He also auditioned for the part of Harry Potter.
“I suppose I probably look more like Harry Potter now,” said Laurence.
“So,” I asked, “you wanted to be an actor, not a musical performer?”
“Yeah. I started off as an actor. I was six when I started. I did a costume drama thing for the BBC about nannies – Berkeley Square – and I played a young Brian Blessed in a film called The Mumbo Jumbo which was mad but had a great cast – Sylvester McCoy, Melinda Messenger, John Inman from Are You Being Served?, Richard O’Brien from The Rocky Horror Show, Joss Ackland, Brian Blessed…”
“To have Joss Ackland and Brian Blessed in the same film is quite something,” I said.
“There is a lot of shouting in it,” said Laurence. “I never met Brian Blessed, but they curled my eyebrows up into these big spikes and put grey in my temples, even though I was playing a 10-year-old version of Brian Blessed and I had this one line which I had to deliver in a cod Brian Blessed voice.
“My voice broke when I was about 11 and, after that, I stopped getting work. When I was 12, I looked and sounded about 14 and no-one is interested in that; they want people who can play younger. I went and saw my agent and she basically told me I was not cute enough any more.”
“But you still wanted to perform.”
“Yes. About the same time this happened – about the age of 12 – I started learning the guitar and forming little bands at school and we made little albums. I made my first album when I was 13 and it’s practically unlistenable to, but I’m quite glad we did it. I got into Pink Floyd and things like that – old bands. Throughout my teenage years, I made a load of very over-reaching, quite wanky prog rock things on acoustic guitars.”
There is a video on YouTube of Laurence (centre), aged 18, singing with a band called Freak Kitchen.
“And, all this time, my mum was taking me to the Edinburgh Fringe every year,” Laurence told me.
“Because she loves it. I think this year was her 22nd consecutive year. Never been a performer, just a punter. She’s a champion hobbyist. She’s heavily involved in the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, edits The Sherlock Holmes Journal and goes on jaunts across Switzerland to the Reichenbach Falls and all that. She’s learning Japanese now.”
“Because she’s interested in eccentric islands.”
“So she took you to the Fringe every year?”
“Yes. I remember, aged 10, seeing Simon Munnery and feeling Wow! I’ve never seen anything like this before! He was doing his League Against Tedium. I remember being really, really inspired by it.”
“At that point,” I asked, “did you want to be a straight stand-up comic?”
“No. I discovered comedy by accident. I went up to Edinburgh every year for years, then started doing music, went to university in Brighton to study music and had this vague idea I would be a composer for a living. Then I moved back to London and started working in my old school in the music department as a kind of admin slave.
“At the same time, I was also performing slightly humorous shanty-type storytelling type songs with bits of weird, dark humour at these very earnest music nights with singer-songwriters who were whingeing on about their girlfriends. The audience really hated my songs and I was getting really down. No-one was interested at all and I was going to just stop and not bother any more, but my flatmate said: We run a little comedy night. Why don’t you come and try it out there?”
There is a showreel of Laurence’s musical comedy material on YouTube.
“So you started doing music-based gigs at comedy clubs,” I said. “But you were never interested in being a straight stand-up?”
“I’m a bit scared of that,” said Laurence. “I don’t think I quite have it in me. And I don’t really want to be a club comedian. I’m not entirely sure what I want to do yet, but I know it’s fairly cross-genre. Bits of all sorts of performance practices. For the new show, which I’m starting to formulate at the moment, I’m not having any guitar at all. It’s going to be all big backing tracks in the same way I do my Disney song.
“The new show (for Edinburgh 2015) is called Cinemusical and it’s gonna be a show about different aspects of film music, apeing all sorts of different film genres and casting a load of mis-matched characters together in a hybrid. I’m going to cast members of the audience as different characters. There will be a gunslinger Western character, a Lara Croft style Indiana Jones type person.”
“A few years ago,” said Laurence, “I did make a concept album in the style of Ennio Morricone called South of The River – set in South London. It was about a day in the life of a charity fundraiser, going up to people in the street. He was a kind of lonely guy who got through his existence by pretending to be Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name. So, in his own brain, each of these encounters was like a duel and the album was the music which was playing in his head as he was going up to people in the street. It was basically a spaghetti western set inside a man’s head.”
“I think pastiche is what I’m interested in. I’ve now got to the stage where I do make a living by performing and composing. I’m a composer for film and theatre.
“At the moment, I’m working for a theatre company called 1927. I think they’re called that because that was the year the movie Metropolis came out. They get a lot of influence from silent films. They have live actors and actresses who interact with projected animation on a huge screen the size of the stage. And they have a live pianist. The show I’m working with them on at the moment is a show called Golem, based on the Jewish folk tale and on the silent film. They have a pianist and a drummer for this one and, to complement the stuff they’re playing live, I’ve made a pre-recorded sound score which goes on around it. It’s being staged at The Young Vic in December.”