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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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Filed under Burlesque, Performance, Sex, Theatre

At the Edinburgh Fringe, Jimmy Savile show actor beaten up in the street after being named in Chortle website review

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Juliette Burton (right) and her flash mob yesterday in the High Street

Juliette Burton (right) and her flash mob in the High Street

But, before that…

Juliette Burton led a flash mob in a choreographed dance down the High Street to publicise her show When I Grow Up

And, on my way to see Irish comic Christian Talbot’s late night comedy compilation show at the Phoenix venue, I heard one of those lines that only seems reasonable during the Edinburgh Fringe.

I bumped into Frank Sanazi in the street and, as we walked along, he told me: “She only does the gimp act on my show when Jesus Christ is not available.”

This is both bizarre and true: I myself have seen Jesus climax Frank Sanazi’s Dax Vegas Night II.

Other things which seemed perfectly normal yesterday were:

Andy Zapp introducing his gorilla (who had flown in from London) at Christian Talbot’s show…

Stompie - The Half-Naked Chef - cooks up mischief last night

Stompie – The Half-Naked Chef – cooks up mischief last night

Stompie performing his unbilled nightly Half-Naked Chef show at Bob’s Bookshop partially in the venue and partially in the street…

And Bob Slayer of Bob’s Bookshop explaining where he got his new chairs from. Bob is known for his high-profile criticisms of the Big Four venues in Edinburgh, including the Underbelly.

“I was in the Udderbelly’s Abbatoir last night,” Bob told me, “and Ed (co-owner of the Underbelly/Udderbelly) came up and said: So you’re Bob Slayer, who writes things about us!

“I said: We don’t have a problem here, do we?

Bob Slayer (left_ thanks Ed of the Underbelly (photograph by Claire Smith)

Bob Slayer (left) makes up with Ed Bartlam of the Underbelly (photograph by Claire Smith)

“He said: Well, it does annoy me when you get your facts wrong.

“I gave him my card and said: Well, do correct me, because I would like to criticise you with the correct facts.

“We had a bit of a smile, a bit of a laugh and he said, as an aside, Well, if there’s anything I can help you with, just let me know.

Well, funny enough,” I said, “I’d love some new chairs for my audience. And – first thing this morning – Ed had 40 brand new chairs delivered to Bob’s Bookshop.”

And so to the beating…

At last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, I blogged about performer Ian Fox being randomly attacked in the street.

Three days ago, I mentioned in a blog that Scotsman journalist Claire Smith had been randomly attacked in Leith.

Yesterday, Gareth Ellis of comedy duo Ellis & Rose told me about being attacked in the street – but not randomly. He was with his comedy partner Richard Rose.

They are performing in two Fringe shows this year – their own show Ellis & Rose: Big in Denmark and (as actors) in Jimmy Savile: The Punch and Judy Show.

Richard Rose (left) wit Gareth Ellis and his eye yesterday

Richard Rose (left) with Gareth Ellis and his eye yesterday

“We went out for a few drinks last night,” Gareth told me. “We were walking down to Cowgate, near Bob’s Bookshop, at about two or three in the morning, a little bit drunk, and this guy walked past and asked us: Are you Ellis and Rose?

“We were quite chuffed that someone had recognised us,” said Richard.

“He told us,” continued Gareth. “You’re sick! You’re sick in the head! and we reacted like What?? and he said You do that Jimmy Savile show, don’t you? We said Yeah and he said You’re fucking sick!

Richard explained: “Gareth tried to engage in dialogue.”

Gareth continued: “I was saying to him But you haven’t seen it, have you? You haven’t seen the show. He was quite a big guy, Scottish accent, in his late-twenties.

“And then he just punched me in the face. I stumbled back a bit and then just ran.”

“To look on the bright side,” I said, “the good thing is that you were recognised in the street. That’s all most Fringe performers want.”

“This stuff wasn’t happening before we were named in the review,” said Gareth.

Gareth Ellis suffers for his art (photo by Lewis Schaffer)

Gareth Ellis – how he he suffered for his art (photograph by Lewis Schaffer)

As I mentioned in my blog three days ago, Gareth and Richard (who did not write the Jimmy Savile show) had specifically asked reviewers not to name them but the Chortle review did.

“We initially didn’t want to be named,” explained Richard, “because we just didn’t want it to be confused with our own show.”

“I imagine if he’d see the actual Jimmy Savile show,” continued Gareth, “he would not have punched me.”

“Maybe we should sue Steve Bennett of Chortle,” mused Richard.

“Yeah,” said Gareth, “maybe Steve Bennett (editor of Chortle who personally reviewed the Jimmy Savile show) actually is culpable.”

“This wasn’t happening before that Chortle review came out,” said Richard.

“Though it may increase our audiences,” said Gareth. “We are doing the Fringe properly… One star reviews; audiences love it; and I got punched in the street.”

“A couple of days ago, at the end of the Jimmy Savile show,” said Richard, “it had gone really well so we asked the audience: Would you like to hear a review of the show? And we read out Steve Bennett’s review to rapturous applause. They particularly liked the opening line This show is an insult…

“Did you see stars when you were punched?” I asked Gareth.

“I only saw five stars,” he replied.

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Comedy audiences “haven’t had a good night out unless they’ve thrown-up a few times and punched their girlfriend”

(This was also published by the Indian news site WSN)

NealeWelch_16feb2013

Neale Welch at the Comedy Cafe sound desk on Saturday

I was at London’s Comedy Cafe Theatre at the weekend, talking to outspoken owner Noel Faulkner and his business sidekick Neale Welch who, with a marketing background, perhaps promotes the club in less controversial style.

“Why is the Comedy Cafe moving to single-artist shows after August?” I asked Neale.

“Partly,” Neale explained, “because of a decline in the demand for mixed-bill shows – an MC and three acts. Plus increased competition. And it’s costing us more in marketing to get the same amount of people in for those shows. It costs more to get people in than it did previously.

Say goodbye to the logo

Say goodbye to the old Comedy Cafe  logo

“We’re also re-designing our logo, moving it from the smiley face of the 1990s and refurbishing the room again – we only did it 18 months ago… Lots of little tweaks to make a big over-all change.”

“Are comedy club audiences really declining?” I asked.

“If you look on Google Trends,” Neale told me, “at the graph of Google searches for comedy… live… stand-up between 2004 and 2012 it declines steadily. If you look at live… comedy… London it shows the same decline. So there’s less people searching for live stand-up comedy and, if that’s going down then, probably, the demand is going down too.”

“Did anything happen to the search graph in 2008 with the financial crash?” I asked.

“Not particularly,” said Neale. “It’s not a fiscal cliff. It’s a steady decline.”

“So,” I said, “you’re going to be changing the type of shows you put on.”

“At the end of this month,” Neale explained, “we’ll be booking acts up until August for normal club shows and then, after that, we’ll be booking single-artist shows to run on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays after August.”

“It was over a year ago,” Noel Faulkner reminded me, “that we decided to turn the old Comedy Cafe into more of a theatre-type venue – the Comedy Cafe Theatre – and attract a theatre-type audience and now that’s actually happening.”

“What’s the difference between the theatre audience and the comedy audience?” I asked.

NoelFaulkner_16feb2013

Noel Faulkner at the Comedy Cafe Theatre

“The theatre audience,” replied Noel, “can actually all read and write and they have an IQ of some level. The comedy audience are feckin’ brain dead and don’t know why we’re not giving them Michael McIntyre.”

“But this is the audience you’ve been catering to for years,” I prompted.

“Well,” said Noel, “we’ve all been catering to them for years. Poor old Jongleurs and the Comedy Store Late Show too. Of course you have to cater to the masses. We all have to suck the corporate cock, whether we’re gay or not.”

“So what different type of comedy will these theatrical comedians be doing in their one-person shows?” I asked Noel.

“It’s not a difference in comedy,” explained Noel. “Comics do what they do, but it’s better if you have a sophisticated audience. The other problem, though, is that sophisticated audiences don’t spend money. They have a couple of drinks and they’re happy. They don’t have to get shit-faced, because their lives aren’t horrible. Whereas your average comedy audience – their lives are so horrible that they go crazy at weekends and they feel they haven’t had a good night out unless they’ve thrown-up a few times, had a fight and punched their girlfriend.”

“In that case, surely,” I suggested, “as a businessman, you should be appealing to the drunken comedy audience who throw money around and not to the more sophisticated audience who don’t spend money.”

“If that’s what I wanted to do for a living,” said Noel, “but, if I just wanted to make a living, I could deal crystal meth or run a lap-dancing club.”

“So,” I asked, “the comedians are going to do the same things but longer in their one-person shows…?”

“Well,” said Noel. “Comedians doing these one-person shows are not compelled to come out with a gag every thirty seconds. It’s going the way I planned it. I want a theatre.”

“You always wanted a theatre?”

“I always wanted a feckin’ audience that would sit down and appreciate the effort that’s gone into it,” said Noel.

The Comedy Cafe is also expanding into producing comedy shows as downloadable MP3s. Soon they are going to release shows recorded at the Comedy Cafe Theatre by Steve N Allen, Anil Desai, Robin Ince, Michael Legge and Eric McElroy.

The sound of comedy from the Cafe

Expanding Cafe laughter – from live shows to mp3 downloads

“When’s that happening?” I asked Neale Welch.

“It’s just being cut now,” he told me. “I’m sorting out the webpage, the hosting and the PayPal and the functionality, so I’m thinking in the next two weeks; something like that. They’ll be released under the individual artists’ names; there will be a standalone page linked-to from our website; the Comedy Cafe will just be a footnote; we’ve just facilitated it.”

“And the appeal of the audio recordings to you is…?” I asked.

“They give us interesting live shows,” Neale told me. “And a bit of legacy. They will still be there in a few years time. We can build the business into more than one arm. We already have the club, the talent agency, a casting agency. It just gives us another arm.”

“And it means you have content beyond live shows,” I suggested.

“Exactly,” agreed Neale. “And we are looking into other content formats.”

Set List - shows coming to Comedy Cafe

Set List comes to Comedy Cafe Theatre

Neale told me the Comedy Cafe is also having Paul Provenza’s superb Set List comedy improvisation shows coming in for a run every Monday from March 11th for six weeks.

“And then,” Noel Faulkner told me, “we’ve another big production company coming in as well. I can’t name them yet. But they’ll come in weekly or monthly with their acts to prepare them for their TV programmes. A lot of people in the comedy business are suddenly realising there’s a small 120-seat space that is really keen to do good theatre. There’s room for three cameras. A tiny stage, but it works: it’s cosy, it’s intimate and it’s what I always wanted to do.”

“In a recent blog,” I said, “I mentioned how, in the future, streaming live club comedy on the internet might affect club business. And Don Ward’s Comedy Store is doing feature films of its shows.”

The Comedy Store film - "It won't work"

The Comedy Store film. “It’s a great idea… It won’t work”

“It won’t work,” said Noel. “It’s a great idea and I asked him why the cinemas are doing it. He told me it’s on the slow movie nights and I thought Well, on the slow movie nights – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – people don’t want to go out. Why go see a movie on a Tuesday night when you can see it on a Friday or Saturday night? So it’s a Tuesday night and there are comics on the big screen? Well, first of all, you don’t need to see a comic on a big screen, because there’s not a lot to look at. And what? You’re going to go all the way down town to a movie theatre and pay top dollar when you can just nip over to the Comedy Store for the same price on a Tuesday night?”

“But punters can’t pop down to the Comedy Store if they live in Plymouth or Aberdeen,” I suggested.

“Well,” replied Noel, “all they have to do is flip over to YouTube or the Dave TV channel and they can see the exact same comedy on a screen.”

“I can’t see the feature film idea working,” I said, “but, in the future, if you did live streaming from the Comedy Store or the Comedy Cafe and it cost a punter only 99p to watch it in Norwich or Belfast or the Outer Hebrides instead of coming to London to see the same acts…”

“Yes,” said Noel. “If, for £5, you could catch the Late Show at the Comedy Store on the internet outside London, that would be great. But the Comedy Store isn’t doing that. They’re trying to fill a cinema. Also, if you’re in a cinema, are people really going to laugh? If there’s only 100 people spread out over 600 seats, you don’t get the atmosphere of a live club.”

“But what happens,” I asked, “when there is live streaming of good acts from a good club at a cheap price? Janey Godley looked into live-streaming her Edinburgh Fringe show from the Underbelly in, I think, 2005 and they couldn’t do it technically from that building at that time. I’ve never understood why no-one has live-streamed their Edinburgh shows so people can see them in Los Angeles and Adelaide. In a few years time, you could have the Comedy Cafe doing a live show to people in London and live-streaming it on a 99p pay-per view so people can see it in Newcastle or Cardiff.”

“Make it £1,” said Noel. “Don’t do this 99p shit.”

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Filed under Comedy, Humor, Humour, Theatre

Random anarchy, incompetence and brilliance at the Edinburgh Fringe

After reading my blog yesterday about the Edinburgh Fringe, former Skint Video performer Brian Mulligan left a post on my Facebook page saying :

“This reminds me of watching a left wing revolutionary comic flicking past the front pages of hard political news (Apartheid, Contras other 80s stuff) in search of the past night’s reviews. Truly a bubble…”

He is absolutely right, of course. The whole of London could burn down and all anyone in Edinburgh would care about is whether Kate Copstick gave them a 3 or a 4 star review in The Scotsman.

The Edinburgh Fringe is the ultimate inward-looking bubble outside which nothing exists. It also seems as if the English riots are taking place in a totally different country which, indeed, they are.

Yesterday evening, I was having tea with comedian Laura Lexx in the City Cafe, talking about Ink, the straight play she has written/produced at the Kiwi Bar about the 7/7 terrorist bombings, while music played on the audio system and the TV monitor showed footage of hoodie youths turning their Grand Theft Auto games into 3D reality on the BBC News channel – with subtitles. The ranks of police in Darth Vader helmets running along the streets were keeping impeccable time to the rhythm of the music. It was an instant accidental music video. Respect, bro.

Laura was more interested than most in the riots because, in London, she lives in the middle of what was/is one of the main riot areas, round the corner from a large Tesco store, now looted. Clearly teenagers in her area have low aspirations. She was telling me about how the 5,000 flyers she ordered for her Ink show in Edinburgh had not yet arrived and she had had to pay for another 500 from another printer to tide her over.

Edinburgh at Fringe time becomes spectacularly incompetent with the venues, shops, bars, newspapers, magazines et al dragging in hundreds of inexperienced and largely uninterested students, unemployed and general ne’er-do-wells. All they want is drink, drugs and, if they strike lucky, to make the beast with two backs. There are unlikely to be riots in Edinburgh because all the potential rioters are working long hours in temporary jobs. But the effect of this transient annual workforce is that nobody remembers anything that happened at the Fringe beyond two years ago. There is no continuity. Almost everybody is equally a newcomer.

So far, the City Cafe wins the highly-contended-for prize for utter incompetence. The Blair Street Sauna, only slightly lower down the slope of the same road, almost certainly has better service and probably has better things to eat. (I have never been there.)

At the City Cafe, it took 27 minutes to get a wildly overpriced (as everything is in Edinburgh at Fringe time) and very bland Mississippi Mud Pie out of them when the place was only a quarter full. This saga went through getting the other half of the food ordered, getting the drinks, but them forgetting the Mississippi Mud Pie, being reminded, bringing a totally different dessert, forgetting the Mississippi Mud Pie, being reminded, forgetting the Mississippi Mud Pie again; and only getting it when I stood at the bar looking at them with an unblinking and slightly psychotic stare.

I don’t actually mind people ballsing things up through general inbuilt incompetence – it’s their employer’s fault not theirs. But this was don’t give a shit incompetence – par for the course in many an establishment during the Fringe.

Things on the show front were going well, though.

The Forum at the Underbelly is a touching little play about an online internet forum with a slight twist at the end which could elicit tears from the unwary. This ain’t going to become a Hollywood movie because you come out into the night unsettled and melancholic. But it is beautifully acted and scripted.

Sneasons of Liz at the New Town Theatre is the opposite – you come out into the night beaming.

It is a musical narrative about a woman with multiple allergies who sneezes her way around the world and is not remotely anything like what I expected.

It is an odd production because most Edinburgh Fringe shows – even the best ones – are ‘alternative’, which means perhaps a bit rough-and-ready and… well… Fringe-like. The one thing they never are is smooth, mainstream Broadway or London West End quality.

But Sneasons of Liz is just that.

It is only a singer on a stool or wandering the stage plus a piano accompanist and some good lighting design. So it is stark. It has no scenery. But it is of London West End or Broadway standard and almost from another era.

This is largely because its star Liz Merendino is a Grade A humdinger of a performer.

She is a classically-trained singer from New York, based in Hong Kong who has been a music teacher for the last nine years. She was wasting her time doing that; she should have been on the West End or Broadway stage. She is that good. The show combines musical standards with specially-commissioned new songs from Fascinating Aida’s Adele Anderson and it is a wonderfully entertaining showbiz blast. Very American but, in this case, none the worse for that. In fact, it’s a positive advantage here.

We are talking Liza Minnelli blast-em-out songs, though much more varied than that implies and Liz Merendino has a voice to die for – let’s hope she doesn’t – one which can cope with some very difficult singing subtleties.

Great songs. Great energy. Great piano accompanist (strangely uncredited). Great, great singer.

It is probably incomparable at the Fringe but, in its own world, it is a 5-star show which does not put a foot wrong.

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Filed under Comedy, Music, Politics, Theatre

Is Matt Roper the new Steve Coogan or is that just a trite headline for this blog?

Comedian and actor Matt Roper got his first Fringe review yesterday. It was a 4-star review from What’s On Stage and began:

“It’s always an especial joy at the fringe when a show you had feared could be a stinker comes up smelling of roses…”

Matt is the son of George Roper, one of The Comedians in the seminal 1970s ITV series which introduced the rest of the UK to successful Northern comics including Bernard Manning, Frank Carson, Stan Boardman and Jim Bowen.

Whether it is correct to call Matt a “comedian” is a moot point. I think he is really an actor with deep comic genes built-into his body.

I saw his Wilfredo – Erecto! show at the Underbelly in Edinburgh last night. I had previously seen it in London, but it has been tweaked and refined (not a word you might normally associate with the character Wilfredo).

The audience reaction last night was extraordinary. There were two points at which he had to actually pause before continuing the show because the giggling was so loudly overwhelming.

There was an entire row composed of Underbelly staff who had come in to see the show (I suspect not for the first time) and they had almost lost all self-control, doubling over in giggles. But the giggling and laughter was widespread throughout the audience.

We are not talking single belly-laughs at specific jokes here. We are talking uncontrollable giggles at the character, the performance and nuances of the script/ad libs. And the whole audience was very definitely laughing WITH not at the character of Wilfredo – a spittle-spewing, slightly seedy Spanish singer and would-be Lothario.

The 4-star What’s On Stage review makes one highly perceptive observation which I would not have thought of but which is spot-on. It says Matt “at his best, shows traces of Steve Coogan in his ability to embody a preposterous alter-ego”.

In a sense, if you see only his Wilfredo character you might underestimate Matt Roper’s full potential.

At the Phoenix, as part of the Free Festival, he plays a Satanic spin doctor in the political satire Lucifer: My Part in the New Labour Project (And How I Invented Coalition Government) – I saw an earlier version of the play at the Canal Cafe in London.

It is only when you see the two totally different characters – and, indeed, meet the real Matt Roper off stage – that you realise how much you are taken in by the characterisation. You are suckered into a willing suspension of disbelief almost without realising it. They are all clearly created characters not 100% realistic (just as Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge is not truly realistic but a semi-cartoon character). But audiences are engulfed by the fantasy.

I have not been so impressed by an actor’s range since I saw Robert Carlyle in The Full Monty and then, two days later, in Face. He performed the characters and their body language so utterly differently yet so believably within their own context that… I would not have realised just how good an actor he is if I had not seen them so close together. It was a bit like the shock of listening to Robert Carlyle’s totally convincing Northern England and South London accents in those movies, then hearing him speak in his own very strong Glaswegian accent.

Matt Roper moves, speaks and looks so totally different in his Wilfredo, French and political spin doctor characters that you only realise just how good he is and what his potential is when you see all of them close together.

Charlie Chuck currently sings a song on stage at the Fringe – I’m Not All There: There’s Something Missing.

With Matt Roper, there is even more there than at first meets the eye and I suspect much more to come.

Next year at the Fringe, he should perform a show comprising multiple characters as a showcase for his immense potential. It would be difficult to pull off because of the costume changes but not impossible.

There is a fascinating potential here.

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How the Edinburgh Fringe came together – for comedy at least

I have probably been going to Edinburgh every year since I was an embryo.

Though I think maybe I missed one year.

I was born in Campbeltown on the west coast of Scotland and partly brought up in Aberdeen in the north east. When my parents moved down to London, we used to spend every summer holiday in south west Scotland, where my parents grew up, with a side-trip to Edinburgh to visit my father’s aunt.

I have always loved Edinburgh. I feel more at home there than anywhere else – which is a tad ironic as I have never actually had a home there.

After I left college, I started reviewing movies and used to go to the annual Edinburgh International Film Festival in August (it recently moved to June). Later, I would also sometimes go to a few Edinburgh Fringe theatre productions. At that time, it was mostly a festival where students with thespian ambitions put on plays of dodgy quality. I remember climbing up open iron stairs which felt like a fire escape to see some endless play about Hitler in a tiny upstairs venue called The Traverse.

The play seemed to last longer than the Second World War.

By 1985/1986, I was working for the Entertainment department at London Weekend Television and started going to comedy shows on the Fringe. This was around the time that Alternative Comedy was finding its legs in the UK and also the time the big venues started at the Fringe. Within a few years, a Big Three were solidly established.

Edinburgh is quite a small city but is topographically dramatic. The New Town (1700s) is separated from the Old Town (medieval) by a valley formed in the Ice Age (the railway now runs through it). The Old Town stands on a volcanic ridge and, in places, is built on two levels.

From 1980, the Assembly venue ran in the Assembly Rooms on George Street in the New Town.

From 1985, the Pleasance was in the Old Town slightly outside where the old city walls had stood.

Starting in 1986, the Gilded Balloon was in Cowgate on the lower level of the Old Town.

The Fringe, as well as being an open festival with no central body choosing who appears (you just arrange your own venue and turn up) had no single central location. The Fringe Office was in the High Street, on the upper level of the Old Town, separate from all the venues.

In 2000 (or 2001, depending on your viewpoint), the Underbelly opened, soon become the fourth Big Venue. It was along the Cowgate from the Gilded Balloon.

In 2002, the Gilded Balloon burnt down, which resulted in its relocation to Bristo Square, on the upper level of the Old Town.

The Pleasance then opened a venue called the Pleasance Dome in Bristo Square, re-naming their original location the Pleasance Courtyard.

The Underbelly then pitched their giant purple cow venue – the Udderbelly – in the middle of Bristo Square.

The Fringe Office then opened a performers’ centre – Fringe Central – literally round the corner from Bristo Square.

And, this year, the Assembly venue has moved from its old building to George Square – beside Fringe Central and a 20 second walk from Bristo Square.

So the Big Four venues are all now clustered around Bristo Square in the Old Town, with the original Underbelly, the Pleasance Courtyard and the Assembly Hall venue on the Mound all in the Old Town too.

Quite what this will do to the venues left isolated in the New Town remains to be seen.

But, at least, comedy on the Fringe now has a centre.

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Edinburgh is preparing for the Fringe Festival and is stocking McCondoms

I had a day trip to Edinburgh yesterday. The Fringe Festival officially starts next Friday but actually on Wednesday.

The first street posters are already up and the venues are being constructed.

The Gilded Balloon’s turrets, which normally have food stalls beneath them which look like they have been shipped in from Glastonbury, this year appear to be going for a Robin Hood theme, with fake battlements built around the food area and the stalls having pseudo medieval roofs.

The Assembly is constructing its new home in George Square; and the Underbelly’s purple upside-down cow already dominates Bristo Square which has become the centre of the Fringe.

In Cowgate, the former church which used to be the Faith venue is now, year-round, called Sin – make of that what you will.

The grimy and pokey Holyrood Tavern, home several years ago to some great Fringe shows, has alas been smartened-up into a neat burger restaurant calling itself Holyrood 9A.

And, at one venue (which shall be nameless), as I was putting up a poster for Malcolm Hardee Week, two men were leaving. I went indoors to ask the barman something and, when I got back to the door, the poster had been removed from the wall… alright… nicked… half-inched… stolen.

I looked out of the doorway.

The two men were walking down the street looking at the poster with smiles on their faces.

Well, fair enough.

All publicity is good publicity and I think Malcolm would have approved of them stealing his poster.

Then I went to the Royal Mile.

I have not gone into one of those tartan tourist shops with bagpipe musak for years but yesterday I did (don’t ask) and beside the till were packets of McCondoms which, according to the illustration on the box, seemed to be in the shape of miniature whisky bottles. Ideal for me. I have no delusions.

I did not buy a packet although I was sorely tempted, just to see what they looked like.

When I got home, I looked up McCondom on the internet and found, alas, that they are not in the shape of miniature whisky bottles.

A customer review makes it clear that they are supposed to be whisky flavoured.

“The smell,” the reviewer says, “reminds of whisky, but I can’t say that it is exactly whisky smell. And this smell unexpectedly turned out not to be sexy at all. And unfortunately lubricant doesn’t taste like whisky, instead it’s something oily and unpleasant.”

It still gets Four Stars from the reviewer for being “really funny”.

So it is a bit like the Edinburgh Fringe. Good marketing may disguise something which gives you a good laugh but leaves you with a bad taste in the mouth. And four stars is no guarantee of a good night.

Look, I did not say this blog had any philosophical insights – nor any jokes.

The online reviewer surreally adds about the McCondom: “It can also become a good addition for a collection of condoms if anyone keeps such a collection.”

I would be very interested to hear if anyone does collect condoms… and why…

… That was going to be the last line of this blog.

Until I Googled “condom collection”.

Of course someone does collect condoms.

Of course they do.

Why would she not?

And she probably drives a small family car.

It really is like the Edinburgh Fringe.

Someone somewhere is doing something extraordinary.

It is just a case of finding her or him.

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