Tag Archives: West End

An English and Japanese comedy show by an Italian and a Canadian in London 

I first met Katsura Sunshine back in 2017. He lives in Japan, the US and Canada and currently performs an ongoing monthly rakugo (Japanese storytelling) show  at the Leicester Square Theatre in London AND a regular monthly rakugo show at the New World Stages in New York.

A couple of months ago, I saw Sunshine’s London show, not for the first time. On that occasion he had, as his special guest, London-based Italian comic Luca Cupani.

They are together again at London’s Leicester Square Theatre this Sunday.

We talked on a Zoom call this week. Somewhat appropriately, given the multi-cultural and multi-national mix, Luca was in a hotel room in Milan, Sunshine was in a living room in Toronto and I was at the Soho Theatre Bar in London.

Luca (top left) with me (top right) and (bottom) Sunshine


JOHN (TO SUNSHINE): How long are your monthly London and New York shows continuing?

SUNSHINE: They’re both indefinite runs at least for the next year. I’ve just been talking to the Leicester Square Theatre about next year’s dates and the New York show has also been confirmed to the end of 2023.

JOHN: Two months ago, Luca appeared in your London show. He did rakugo (for the first time) and his stand-up; and you did stand-up (for the first time) and your rakugo.

SUNSHINE: It was a lot of fun, just like ‘appreniticing’ each other. Luca is teaching me stand-up and I’m sort-of teaching him rakugo.

JOHN: So how did Luca – an Italian – get involved in performing at London’s Leicester Square Theatre with a Canadian who does traditional Japanese storytelling in New York?

LUCA: Sunshine offered me the chance to be on stage and it felt like a crazy idea so I couldn’t say No. I am enjoying being out of my comfort zone. I’m already an Italian doing comedy in English in London, so I’m all for cultural cross-over.

SUNSHINE: I met Luca eight years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe and we’ve been friends for all this time. We’ve gone to see each other’s shows. When he told me he was going back to the Edinburgh Fringe this year for the seventh time – I’ve performed there four times… Well, I know how much it costs and the producer side of me said:

“Luca, to save money, just rent a West End or Broadway theatre and add that to your resume. Or, instead of that, just join me!  I’ve already got the theatre. I’ll put a kimono on you and we’ll turn it into a thing. It would be fun to do it together!”

LUCA: And it IS fun. I quite like the rules of rakugo. Okay, I cannot yet follow all of the rules but it’s fun to try to follow some of the basic rules. It’s very different from what I normally do and that’s why I like it a lot. You show yourself as being vulnerable and, even if you fail, it is still funny for the audience… I think!

JOHN: As I understand rakugo, there are set, pre-existing stories, so you are not able to script your own performance like in stand-up comedy?

SUNSHINE: Technically, you make up the first part and then you lead the theme of your made-up material into the scripted story which has been passed-down from master to apprentice through the ages. So the first part is a little bit like stand-up comedy and the big laugh is at the end. I think Luca’s perfectly comfortable with that except he has to kneel in a kimono.

JOHN: What was the most difficult thing about doing it?

LUCA: For me, kneeling down on the stage in a position which is not very comfortable, using the props in the correct way and remembering the basic rule that you look in two different directions to portray two different characters.

In stand-up, you usually talk about yourself and you are being yourself. In rakugo you have to create a story and sketch two characters very quickly and in a different style. That’s the most difficult. And the most fun.

JOHN: Sunshine, I think in the show two months ago that was the first time you had performed Western-style stand-up. What was that like for you?

SUNSHINE: At first glance, it seems like the same as the first part of a ragugo show, but the rhythm of stand-up is different: the laughs are coming much more quickly. When I was standing in front of the audience and talking in my usual Rakugo way, I sort-of felt the audience’s slight impatience more than I would have in storyteller mode.

But that sharpened me up a bit. 

I cut the material down; I cut words down. I got to more of a stand-up comedy rhythm. It was a great feeling and quite different to performing rakugo.

JOHN: And in the show this coming Sunday… ?

SUNSHINE: We will both do some (solo) stand-up comedy and both do some (solo) rakugo. Exactly the same format as before.

It was SO much fun last time. To have someone in the dressing room with me and exchange ideas about comedy and the different types of both stand-up comedy and rakugo. It was brilliant.

For me, presenting rakugo alone in New York and London… There’s a formality to rakugo. You’re in the kimono, you bow – there’s a lot of formality – and people don’t want to insult the culture. I always have to get the audience on board… This is comedy! You can laugh! Relax!

But when Luca and I walked out at the beginning of our dual show at the Leicester Square Theatre and the first half was each of us doing (solo) stand-up comedy, we had the audience going: WOOAAAHHHH!!

They knew the routine for stand-up comedy. You cheer or laugh your head off and the performers will give you all the better performance.

So leading into rakugo in the second half from a base of stand-up comedy which the audience already understood and could enjoy and relax with was a completely different experience. It was just so much more fun and easy to perform.

JOHN: Luca: did you learn anything from performing Japanese rakugo that you could use in your Western stand-up?

LUCA: The story I had was short but fun and it involved a lot of physical stuff. In rakugo, you use your face more often than I usually do when I talk. So I think it helped me to be more expressive. Also, if you know where you want to go, you can play a bit more in-between.

In stand-up, you need laughter all the way though. You ride on the energy of laughter, otherwise it doesn’t work. In a stand-up routine, you don’t always know where you’re going because you wait for the reaction from the audience. But, in rakugo, the set-up is way-way longer and you can prepare the audience, warm them up, play with pauses.

Last time what happened – and it wasn’t planned – was that, at the very beginning, when we introduced the show, we inadvertantly almost did some manzai which is another Japanese comedy form with two artists – one plays the smart guy, the other the foolish guy. Sunshine was smart; I was foolish. When we were talking to the audience and tried to warm them up, it became a sort-of improvised manzai that we hadn’t planned.

JOHN: And you will be performing together again?

SUNSHINE: I hope so. This is the last show of this year, then we’ll be starting up again next February, dates to be confirmed.

JOHN: Sunshine: how long has it taken you to get to this stage as a rakugo performer?

SUNSHINE: I’m in my 15th year. I started my apprenticeship in 2008 and it’s three-year apprenticeship – so 2008-2011. It’s basically indentured servitude.

I was with my master (Katsura Bunshi VI), no day off, for three years – cleaning his house, doing the laundry. You’re just with the master every waking hour for three years and you just watch and learn.

In 2011, I finished my apprenticeship so I’m in my 14th/15th year as a professional storyteller, which qualifies me as a master. I could take apprentices now, if I chose or if someone wanted to be my apprentice. So far, nobody’s come out of the woodwork!

JOHN: So, Luca, do you want to wash Sunshine’s laundry?

LUCA: I’m not comfortable with hair. I got rid of mine because I was tired of washing it.

SUNSHINE: (LAUGHING) He’s changing the subject!

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Colin Copperfield (1st of 3) – Behind the quirky scenes of Jesus Christ Superstar

“Oozing energy… sheer delightful naughtiness”

It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Zing! is a wildly entertaining autobiography by Colin Copperfield. 

Colin started in showbiz aged 14 and has spent his life as an actor, dancer, singer and songwriter – including 25 years in the vocal group Wall Street Crash.

He spent 3 years on cruise ships, 6 years on shows in London’s West End, including Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who’s Tommy, and he appeared in over 900 TV shows in 26 countries.

He appeared in three Royal Command Performances and on five albums and eleven singles.

He told me: “I’ve recently finished composing the musical Paradise Lane, fingers and eyes crossed coming to a theatre near you soon.”

He was born in Forest Gate in the East End of London. 

“I had a bit of a tough upbringing. I’m 72 now… Now I write songs for other artists and I’m a dance teacher specialising in tap, modern and ballet. I also work as personal fitness trainer.”

Obviously I had to talk to him.

Colin in his Wall Street Crash days…


JOHN: So… Jesus Christ Superstar in the West End.

COLIN: It was just one of those flukes of showbusiness. I was around 28. I was doing singing telegrams to pay the rent.

Superstar needed rock singers for the stage production.

They couldn’t make rock singers out of the traditional people in showbusiness – they were all My Boy Bill singers. They needed rock singers so, when they started, they auditioned people who sang in bands, like I did. But most of the people who sang in bands had no theatre discipline. They could sing on television but couldn’t do theatre.

There was a big problem getting enough good suitable singers. So we very often used to do Jesus Christ Superstar – this is a top West End show remember – with seven disciples. 

We had lots of Japanese tourists coming in and you could see them looking confused. Surely there were 12 disciples???

We – truly – sometimes used to dress the girls with short hair up as boys to sit round the Last Supper table, because you really HAD to have 12 disciples at the Last Supper.

At some points we were all round the table and we’d all link up hands and have to stretch a bit: different arm lengths.

JOHN: It must almost be relaxing performing in a successful, long-running West End show, though…

COLIN: Well, when I was in Jesus Christ Superstar, I was really busy. I was also working at the Stork Club in Piccadilly Circus – doing the midnight show and the 2 o’clock in the morning show. And I was also doing a television show at Teddington Studios with Tommy Steele.

I was doing the Tommy Steele show all day, which was really hard; we were tap-dancing down this staircase all day. Guys were breaking their legs going up and down. I only got the gig because of one of my friends, who was a proper dancer. I went along and it was quite a long rehearsal period – a 2-month rehearsal period –  and then we filmed at Teddington.

I was doing that during the day and Jesus Christ Superstar at night and then I was working at the Stork Club after that. So I was a bit tired. I was getting about 2 or 3 hours kip a night.

Just before the interval, they did this song called Gethsemane

Anyway, one night I’d been tap-dancing during the day in Teddington and then I got to Superstar in the West End.

It was a Saturday night performance – I was knackered.

Just before the interval, they did this song called Gethsemane – everyone’s asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus sings this very long song.

It went on for about eight minutes about how he was going to be denied and all that.

At the end of it, Jesus sings (COLIN SINGS) “…before I change my mind…” – then BLACKOUT.

So, there’s a blackout and we all clear the stage – Interval – the audience buy their ice creams. Then, at the beginning of the second half – BLACKOUT – we all come back into our sleeping positions – Jesus is standing there.

So, at the end of the first half, I had got onto the floor; it was a really warm floor; perspex squares; I’m slunk down; Jesus is singing; I’ve fallen asleep. BLACKOUT. Peter and John have gone. Jesus has gone. 

But I’m still fast asleep on the stage. 

They were about to lower the iron curtain; all the lights are up and somebody saw me lying there, more or less under the iron curtain.

“Colin! Colin! Colin!!!”… 

They had to send the stage hands on to wake me up.

All the audience have seen this. So, at the beginning of the Second Act… BLACKOUT… and, as the lights came up, the whole audience stands up and starts clapping and shouting “Bravo!” just as Jesus is about to be denied. Literally, a standing ovation.

I was in Jesus Christ Superstar for three years. I was in it three times. 

JOHN: Three times?

COLIN: I had been in Superstar for about a year, then left to do a show at the Ambassadors Theatre – Let The Good Stones Roll, about the Rolling Stones. I played Keith Richards. That was on for about 8 months.

After Heaven, an unexpected encounter

Then I went to do another show called Leave Him to Heaven at the New London Theatre with Anita Dobson. That came off and I was meeting a mate of mine in town for a drink near the Palace Theatre where Jesus Christ Superstar was still on.

As I passed the Palace Theatre, suddenly Peter Gardner, the company manager, appeared out of nowhere and rushed over: 

“Colin! Colin! You gotta come over, darling. We’ve got nobody to play Peter and Simon Zealotes!”

“Peter,” I said, “I’m going to meet my mate for a drink. I haven’t been in this show for a year.”

“Darling! You’ll remember it, darling! You’ll remember it! Come in! Come in! Go up to the wardrobe department!”

I went in. I went up. New people. Nobody I knew. 

So I go on stage. It’s the Saturday Matinee and I’m on stage with this cast of 35 people I’ve never met in my life. They are all thinking: Who is this bloke?

I was on stage, singing all the relevant songs. And, at the end of it, bless their hearts, the whole company did the Who’s Best and the whole company turned to  me. I didn’t know ANYbody.

I never ever took time off when I was in the West End but, another night, I got Hong Kong flu. Loads of people were off sick. I think some theatres even went dark. I was living in Islington (north London), lying there ‘dying’ in my bed and Peter Gardner phones up: 

“Treas, treas” – he called everybody ‘treas’ as in ‘treasure’ – “you gotta come in, darling. We’ve got nobody to play Peter, Simon or Herod and…”

I said: “Peter, I’ve got a temperature of 104, otherwise I’d be in there. You know that.”

“No, darling, you gotta come in…”

“Anyway,” I said, “I can’t play four parts, because they overlap!”

He said: “Oh, no no no. We’ll work round that, darling.”

JOHN: We’ll kill Jesus early?

COLIN: “We’ll change the story a bit… We’ll send a car for you. You’ve got to come in, darling. We’re in terrible trouble.”

So I get in this car and I really was feeling like I’m dying. 

I got to the theatre and they put me in the first costume and threw me on to the stage. Then they put me into the next costume to play Herod. Then off into the next one… And I have very little memory of the whole thing. I was nearly dead when I did it! Four roles! They had a cab waiting to take me home and I slept maybe for three days.

JOHN: They were able to change your face by putting on different wigs?

COLIN: All of that, but I don’t think it was fooling anybody: Hold on, that short bloke was just playing Herod… Why is he playing the High Priest now? I guess people thought it must have some deep theatrical meaning.

Anyway, one night I played four parts in the same play in the West End, with a temperature of 104.

…CONTINUED HERE..
with the dustman, the buskers and Dean Martin

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London’s West End stages something that was stuck on Damian Hirst’s shoe

London’s theatrical mask falls

London’s theatrical mask sometimes slips to show barrenness

I usually tell people I do not do reviews in this blog.

I tend to do previews not reviews. And only of productions which I have good reason to think are going to be good.

Today’s blog may explain why I do not do reviews.

The basic reason is that you have to be truthful, otherwise there is no point.

I have been invited to around six West End plays fairly recently and three of them were, I have to say, not good. I saw one this afternoon which had brilliant set design but was a right load of old bollocks.

Jeeesus!!!!

Not a single second of it had any point or meaning from beginning to end.

Utter bollocks.

I could quote the Bard and say it was full of sound and fury signifying nothing… except it did not even have any fury to recommend it.

The full house audience (I suspect heavily ‘papered’) clapped fast and whooped loud with appreciation at the end. An intimation that, when you read any review of anything (perhaps especially from me), it can never by definition be anything other than very subjective.

To my mind, the play this afternoon (in a major West End theatre) was start-to-finish pointless. It had words which flowed into sentences which flowed into speeches. It sounded fluent. But the words were just sounds.

Well-delivered by the actors. Excellent set-design. Good lighting. Mostly good sound (the female lead needed to either project more or to be mechanically helped more).

But the play? Bollocks.

Outside, after the show, people were discussing it. One Chinese person with, I suspect, a limited understanding of English, was having the basic idea of the play explained to him. Others were discussing the subject of the play without, it seemed to me, much reference to the play itself.

As far as I was concerned it was – apparently like much being put on in the West End at he moment – a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

If a play is staged in a major West End theatre with decent acting and good technical production, no-one is prepared to admit that whoever commissioned it made a mistake.

I remember being told a possibly apocryphal story that the talented artist Damien Hirst was once on his way to a meeting with some money-men commissioning art. He stepped in some dog shit on the way and, entering the meeting room, took his shoe off and put it on the table as his latest work of art.

All the money-men accepted that it really was.

No-one complained that he was presenting them with a piece of shit and claiming it was Art, because he was Damian Hirst and they were not.

People who can do. People who can’t often present work by people who do without knowing what they are doing.

(The first person to tell me the name of the play I am talking about above gets a free copy of Malcolm Hardee’s out-of-print and excellently ghost-written autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake.)

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Festive farting, yet another West End theatre dud + Northern transvestite nun

Great Britain - Emperor’s New Clothes

Great Britain – Emperor’s New Clothes

Chris Tarrant once told me: “You are on your own planet. Stay there.”

I have never been sure whether this showed admiration or contempt.

But last night, I felt I was on my own planet.

I saw the play Great Britain (about national newspapers hacking telephones) at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, in London.

It was written by the same man who wrote the West End and Broadway triumph One Man, Two Guvnors and current London success Made in Dagenham.

The Evening Standard called it “a timely look at the tangled relationship between the press, politicians and the police”.

I would say more succinctly “trite, obvious and nothing new to say.”

The Sunday Times, Guardian and Independent gave it 4-star reviews.

According to the Daily Telegraph’s 4-star review, it had “a triumphant premiere at the National Theatre” and the audience last night seemed to enjoy it.

There had been a lot of work put into it but, to my mind, it sank tediously and disastrously amid a tsunami of atmospheric detail and mis-delivered jokes because it largely ignored the building of any rising linear plot and had no doubt fine actors attempting to deliver funny lines and failing because they were actors not comics.

It was a comedy show for people who never go to live comedy.

It was like watching university students at the Edinburgh Fringe perform a series of potentially funny self-contained sketches about the same subject which failed to gel into a single unified whole.

At the end of Act 1 – an act bereft of the build-up of any strong linear plot – my eternally-un-named friend and I were on the verge of ordering strychnine at the bar and could only admire one line each from the whole hour-plus performance. Both lines were about pandas in Scotland – nothing to do with the play’s subject.

Act II seemed better, but this may have been because my expectations were several levels below zero.

It was like listening to people farting around with words.

I would rather have the real thing.

I may or may not be spending New Year’s Eve with my chum Mr Methane (the world’s only professionally performing farter). A foreign film crew might or might not be coming over to shoot him… with cameras.

He is one of the least self-centred of performers.

Last night, I came home to a message from him saying:

“I have just discovered Musical Ruth on YouTube.

Musical Ruth - better than a West End play

Musical Ruth – nun can out-perform in public areas Up North

“She is Nuntastic!

“She/he seems to get paid by local Councils – mainly in the North and Midlands of England – to go around town centres gently harassing what is left of their dwindling consumer base. He is a quality performer/showman. We may actually know him. He/she does look a bit like Adrian Edmondson. Definitely a character for your blog I think.”

Mr Methane has a point but – hey! – it is almost Christmas and I can’t be bothered to contact Musical Ruth.

A very quick check round, though, unearths the fact that I do not have my finger anywhere near the pulse on eccentric performers because Derby-born Matthew Hunt (aka Musical Ruth) has been performing for 20 years, became a Nun act in 2006 and is now based in Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire – somewhere I suspect is a hotbed of oddity.

I have now seen three West End Theatre duds in a row.

And Musical Ruth.

Bring Musical Ruth to the West End.

Or take me back to my own planet.

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The young improvisers who ended up in a scripted West End comedy success

The Duchess Theatre wit its back-to-front title sign

The Duchess Theatre with a back-to-front sign

“I’m not sure it can get much better than this,” Charlie Russell told me yesterday. “We’re all very early on in our careers and to perform in a show where we have artistic input… AND it’s in the West End… AND it’s your best mates… That is good. I’m enjoying it while I’ve got it.”

The Play That Goes Wrong opened at The Duchess Theatre this September and has now had its run extended until at least next September.

Yesterday I chatted to two of its cast members – Charlie Russell and Dave Hearn.

The play began just before Christmas 2012 as a one-act hour-long show at the Old Red Lion in Islington. Last year, it transferred to Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall and played the Edinburgh Fringe, still as a one-act show.

Charlie Russell and Dave Hearn at Duchess Theatre yesterday

Dave Hearn and Charlie Russell at Duchess Theatre yesterday

“Then,” Charlie told me, “when Kenny Wax and Mark Bentley got involved as producers, they wanted to take it on tour, so it needed a second act and an interval.”

The bizarre thing, to my mind, when I saw it last week, was that the second act is even better than the first.

“Who,” I asked, “thought up the title?”

“I did,” said Dave.

“It is brilliant,” I said.

“It was originally called The Murder Before Christmas,” explained Charlie, “because it was a Christmas show at the Old Red Lion. After that, it was going to be called Murder at Haversham Manor.”

The Play That Goes Wrong - does what it says on the label

The Play That Goes Wrong – It does what it says on the label

“But The Play That Went Wrong,” I said, “is utterly brilliant because from the title alone you know the set-up, you know the entire plot and you know it’s a comedy without even being told it’s a comedy. It’s up there with the movie title Snakes On a Plane. The title tells you everything you need to know. You know it’s farce, it’s slapstick, it’s comedy and it’ll be fast-moving – all the stuff that you deliver.”

“This Christmas,” said Dave. “We will have been doing it for two years.”

“My fear,” said Charlie, “is that I might not be able to do real ‘serious’ acting any more. What happens if people give me texts I’m not allowed to change?”

“You’ve also now started doing a monthly show here,” I said. “Lights! Camera! Improvise! which has played at the last five Edinburgh Fringes.”

Lights_Camera_Improvise

A boost for the performers and also for improv in general?

“Yes,” said Charlie. “We did the first one here on Monday and then it’s going to be the first Monday of every month.”

“Did you,” I asked, “decide to do that because it gives you a bit of freedom away from the scripted restrictions of The Play That Goes Wrong?”

“We had lots of reasons,” explained Charlie. “It’s really nice to be able to improvise once a month, as well as doing the same show every day. But also our company – Mischief Theatre – is bigger than just this group of people doing The Play That Goes Wrong and they’re all involved in Lights! Camera! Improvise! – It’s a boost for them and also a boost for improv in general; getting it on the bigger stage.”

“It’s always tough to sell improv,” agreed Dave. “How people perceive improv is often quite damaging. So giving it a West End platform and using the success of this show to springboard it is good. But, if I’m being honest, it’s really more for us because we enjoy it and it genuinely is completely different every performance. We will do it once a month and you do feel a sense of freedom – that you can just let loose.”

“Improv,” added Charlie, “was an element of how we created The Play That Goes Wrong, so it does connect to Lights! Camera! Improvise!

All the cast of The Play That Goes Wrong studied, at various times, at LAMDA.

“You must be the crème de la crème of LAMDA,” I said.

“Probably the opposite,” said Charlie. “The reason we did The Play That Goes Wrong was because we were not working. We were the ones who were not successful, so we put on our own show.”

“And then ironically,” I said, “you are the ones who end up with a West End success… Are Americans happy to come and see farce?”

Americans love English people looking stupid

Americans love stupid English people

“They love,” said Dave, “the very quintessentially English nature of it. I think they love English people looking stupid.”

“And Fawlty Towers is big over there,” Charlie pointed out.

“But why a farce?” I asked. “Surely farces are way out of date?”

“The play kind of developed,” said Dave. “We never really thought of it as a farce to start with; we just thought it was a clown show: the idea of a bunch of clowns trying to put on a show and it goes wrong.”

“Literally clowns?” I asked.

“Not circus clowns,” said Dave.

“So like Lecoq?” I asked.

“Well,” Charlie replied, “the teacher who inspired a lot of us at LAMDA and ended up directing the show – Mark Bell – he went to Lecoq.”

“Basically,” I said, “you are all improvisers. “But can you improvise during this show? It’s very finely timed.”

“Well,” said Dave, “one time a table got knocked over by accident and liquid went everywhere, so some of us just slipped on it several times to make a point of that having happened… And, if one audience is really, really going for a particular joke, we can add in more ‘business’ or move on quickly if an audience don’t go for that joke in another show. If you’re not on your toes and somebody else is, you might get left behind, so everyone has to be constantly on the front foot.”

“I heard,” I said, “that the bin which shoots flames genuinely went wrong one night.”

“Yes,” said Dave, “it nearly set fire to one of our understudies. He was covering the part of the actor who is playing the dead man and he accidentally kicked the bucket – literally – and a massive flame shot up. The problem is that, when stuff actually goes wrong, it can be quite difficult because everything is so specifically timed.

“So, when that fire went off, it meant we didn’t have the fire effect when we actually needed it later in the play. We had to improvise around that, which was a lot of fun but it messed with the structure of the play.”

The Play That Goes Wrong

“Sometimes things can go wrong because they go right…”

“If someone forgets a line, we can get around it,” said Charlie, “but sometimes things can go wrong because they go right. If something does not fall when it is meant to, that is not good, because it interferes with the way of doing the gag and getting the laugh.”

“Doesn’t it, as improvisers,” I asked, “get boring doing the same things daily?”

“It’s very personal to each audience,” said Charlie. “Even if nothing were to change from one show to the other, it can’t possibly be the same because it’s comedy and the audience is the variable.”

Dave added: “You get the immediate feedback from the audience. Each show is totally different. Sometimes you get quiet audiences, sometimes loud, sometimes people heckle.”

“Heckle?” I asked, surprised.

“Sometimes,” explained Dave, “they shout out: It’s under the chaise! You know that bit.”

“There’s one point,” said Charlie, “where two characters want to kiss and there’s a line No-one wants to see that – and one night a little boy’s sweet, high-pitched voice in the audience shouted out: Yes we do!

“The physical slapstick and the set is amazing,” I said. “Extraordinary. Was the set added just for the West End production?”

“We toured with it,” said Charlie.

“Surely not with the collapsing floor?” I asked. “It has three positions.”

“Four including its upright position,” said Charlie.

“So could you develop the concept of the show?” I asked. “You could do The TV Play That Goes Wrong.”

Charlie Russell and Dave Hearn - The Play That Goes Wrong trailer

Dave and Charlie in a trailer for The Play That Goes Wrong

“We’ve been talking to TV people about it,” said Charlie, “but one problem is how you could maintain the level of danger.”

“You would have to transmit it live,” I said.

“But even then,” said Charlie, “would it translate on the screen? For a live audience it works well but, if it is performed live but viewed through a screen, it might not be the same.”

“It can’t really be made into a film,” I said, “because it relies totally on being a live performance.”

“The idea I would like to do on film,” said Charlie, “would be something about this group of characters we have created. They have so much back story that the audience don’t see. I’d like to see a fly-on-the-wall of their relationships.”

“Front and back stage like Noises Off?” I said. “Though I have never seen Noises Off.”

“I’ve not seen it either,” said Charlie. “None of us have seen it, though everyone always compares us to it.”

“So,” I asked, “as The Play That Goes Wrong is commercially successful, is there going to be a second?”

Peter Pan Goes Wrong

It’s not just a murder can go wrong, so can a children’s classic

“There already is,” said Dave. “Peter Pan Goes Wrong. We did it last year at the Pleasance Theatre in London and, as of last week, it’s just finished its first opening of tour in Guildford. Then it’s going to Manchester this month and then it’s touring until July next year.”

“Are they all LAMDA people in the cast again?” I asked.

“Quite a few,” said Dave.

“Not exclusively, though,” said Charlie. “There are some Mischief Theatre members in it, but not exclusively.”

Meanwhile the list of celebrities coming backstage after The Play That Goes Wrong is growing – an eclectic mix including Joanna Lumley, Dara Ó Briain, Angus Deayton, Joe Pasquale and JJ Abrams, the film director behind the reboots of Star Trek and Star Wars.

The night I was there, Paul Merton was in the audience.

There is a trailer for The Play That Goes Wrong on YouTube.

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See London West End shows for free

Diane Soencer performing at Soho Theatre yesterday

Diane Spencer performed at launch yesterday

I went to Soho Theatre yesterday for the London launch of this year’s Brighton Fringe. The event was unticketed but there was a guest list.

Inside the auditorium, I got into conversation with a man who had wandered in off the street randomly.

“I was passing,” he told me, “and it looked like something was happening, so I just came in. I smiled at the girls on the door. It looked like a PR thing where there might be free food and drink. I go to see a lot of plays and musicals in the West End for free.”

“How do you do that?” I asked.

“I only go to see things that have been running a while,” he told me. “so there will always be some empty seats. I guess when the interval is going to be, get there a bit earlier and wander up to the bar. They don’t check for tickets on the door. I go up to the bar and wait for the audience to come out for the interval.

“When the interval ends and the audience goes back in, I wait in the bar until they’re all seated, then go in, look for an empty seat and go sit in it.”

“But,” I asked, “Don’t the people sitting next to what had been an empty seat look a bit surprised?”

“Not really,” the man told me. “Sometimes they do a bit, but I guess they just think I’m very late.”

“Have you ever been thrown out for not having a ticket?” I asked.

“Never,” he said.

“Don’t you have trouble following the plot if you’ve missed the first half?”

“Not often,” he told me. “And, with musicals, it doesn’t matter much. I know roughly what the story is about. I check in advance. Most people go for the songs. So do I.”

“How long have you been doing this?” I asked.

“A couple of years,” he told me.

“I’ve always thought,” I said, “that it would be a good scam to go round churches on a Saturday afternoon when there are a lot of weddings. If you go in, they just ask if you are with the bride or the groom. They will direct you to sit at one side of the church or the other and, after the wedding, you could probably get to the Reception and get free food and drink. But I could never be bothered trying it.”

“There would be no spare seat for you at the Reception,” the man told me. “And wasn’t there a film about that?”

“Could have been,” I said.

“I never saw it,” the man said.

“Nor me,” I said. “If there was one.”

There was a long pause.

“I once went with two friends to Luton Airport on a Saturday night,” I said. “People never go to airports unless they have to, so I thought it might be interesting to have a night out at Luton Airport like it was a social event. Or a holiday. A one-night holiday at Luton Airport.”

The man did not look interested.

“We had a meal there,” I persevered. “We bought Luton Airport cowboy hats – Why Luton Airport had cowboy hats I don’t know – and we went to the Arrivals area and waved at people coming back from their holidays.

“It wasn’t as interesting as I thought it might be,” I admitted. “I thought it would be interesting to go for no reason to somewhere you never normally go to unless you have a reason. I suggested we should go to a hospital the next time. People don’t go to hospitals unless they have to and you can wander anywhere you like. I thought we might just see where we could wander. My friends thought it was in slightly bad taste.”

“Oh,” said the stranger at Soho Theatre, clearly bored.

He started taking photographs of the stage show.

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When people ask that British breaking-the-ice question: “What do you do?”

On Wednesday night, BBC2 will screen the first in a new series of that extraordinary TV comedy Rab C Nesbitt, written and created by Ian Pattison.

Last week, I asked Ian if there was something he would rather do instead of another series of Rab C Nesbitt.

“Instead of?” he replied. “Why not ‘in addition to?’ I’ve now finished writing my fourth novel and have written a screenplay based on my third. My novels, of course, don’t sell. I advised the publisher of my last book to put Ian Rankin’s name on the jacket on the basis that IR would never notice my sidled addition to his oeuvre as his stuff takes up all the shelves in Waterstone’s and most of the cafeteria.”

I suspect most fans who watch Rab C Nesbitt do not think of Ian primarily as a novelist. And most people who admire his novels do not think of him primarily as a TV comedy scriptwriter.

Pretty much throughout my life, Whenever people ask that first perennial British breaking-the-ice question, “What do you do?” I have immediately got into trouble, because I have never really known the correct answer.

Sometimes I say, “I have bummed around a lot,” which is probably closer to the truth than anything.

I suspect as a percentage, more than anything, I have probably sat in darkened rooms editing trailers and marketing/sales tapes. But, when I have said that, people have thought I was/am a videotape editor, which I never have been – too technical for me – I was called writer or producer or director or whatever the union or company felt like at the time – or whatever I wanted to make up for a nameless job – and, once you get into mentioning “I do on-air promotions”, you open a whole can of befuddled misunderstanding.

“Do people do that?” is a common response.

So, over the years, different people have thought I do different things, real or imagined, depending on what I happened to have been doing – or what they thought I was doing – at the exact moment I first met them.

TV research is one. Editor of books is another. Manager of comedians is one that always amuses me.

This sprang to mind on Friday, when I saw comedian Owen O’Neill ‘storm the room’ as the saying goes at the always excellent monthly Pull The Other One in Peckham.

Most people who see Owen perform comedy, I suspect, see him as “just” a stand-up comic which, of course, is far from the truth. If they know a bit about comedy, they may know he has performed at over 20 Edinburgh Fringes and been nominated for the Perrier Award.

They may know he acted in the high-profile stage productions of Twelve Angry Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Odd Couple.

But I first met Owen off-stage in 2003 when Malcolm Hardee and I were commissioning Sit-Down Comedy for publishers Random House. It was an anthology of writing by comedians – not to be confused with the phrase “comic anthology” because a lot of the short stories are very, very dark (a glimpse, I suspect, of what lurks in many comedians’ minds). The book should have been called Sit-Down Comedians, but publishers’ mis-marketing of their own product knows no bounds.

Owen wrote a story The Basketcase for Sit-Down Comedy: a particularly dark and moving tale. His short film of The Basket Case (which he also directed) won him the award for Best Short Fiction movie at the 2008 Boston Film Festival in the US and Best International Short at the 2010 Fantaspoa Film Festival in Brazil.

Most people who see Owen perform comedy probably do not know this. Most probably do not know his first feature film as writer Arise and Go Now was directed by Oscar-winning Danny Boyle or that his play Absolution got rave reviews during its off-Broadway run or that he co-wrote the stage adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption currently running in the West End of London.

I suspect if a literate alien arrived from Alpha Centauri and looked at the facts objectively, Owen would be described not as a stand-up comic but as a playwright who also performs comedy (his plays are many and varied).

You get typecast as being one thing in life no matter how much you do.

In the last couple of months, comedian Ricky Grover appeared in BBC TV soap EastEnders; and the movie Big Fat Gypsy Gangster, which he wrote and directed, was released.

What do you call people like this?

Well, in Ricky’s case, you obviously call him “Mr Grover” and treat him with respect.

He also wrote for Sit-Down Comedy and I know his background too well!

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In praise of the Daily Telegraph and Pear Shaped Comedy Club’s quirkiness

To start at the end of this blog and to reply to your reaction…

Look.

It’s my blog. I am allowed to witter.

So, for fans of Tristram Shandy

Brian Damage and Krysstal’s weekly Pear Shaped comedy club has been running in London’s West End for eleven years. Brian and Krysstal promote it as “the second worst comedy club in London”. I prefer to call Pear Shaped the Daily Telegraph of British open spot comedy clubs.

Let me explain.

When I blogged about last weekend’s six-hour event celebrating the anarchic life of Ian Hinchliffe, I did not mention that I told ex-ICA Director of Live Arts Lois Keidan about my admiration for Bernard Manning as a comic, Margaret Thatcher as a Parliamentary debater and the Daily Telegraph as a newspaper. I do not think she was impressed with this triple whammy.

But – in addition to my love of quirky Daily Telegraph obituaries in their golden era under Hugh Massingberd and their sadly now-dropped legendary Page Three oddities – I think the Daily Telegraph is the only actual national NEWSpaper left. All the others are, in effect, magazines with ‘think’ pieces and additional background to yesterday’s TV news.

But the Daily Telegraph prints a high quantity of short news reports and (outside of election times) maintains an old-fashioned Fleet Street demarcation between News and Comment. The news reporting is, mostly, unbiased straight reportage; the comment is what non-Telegraph readers might expect.

They have also consistently displayed an admiration for rebels.

The Daily Telegraph – perhaps moreso the Sunday Telegraph – always showed an interest in and admiration for comedian Malcolm Hardee. They loved quirky MP Alan Clark, though they disapproved of his sexual amorality. The Daily Telegraph even surprisingly championed early Eminem. When the red-top tabloids were claiming his music and his act were the end of Western Civilization, the Daily Telegraph reviewed his first UK tour as being in the great tradition of British pantomime.

I once met a Daily Telegraph sub-editor at a party who hated working at the paper for exactly the same reason I loved reading it. People would yell across the room at him: “Give me a three-inch story!” not caring what the actual story was.

So the Daily Telegraph ended up with an amazing quantity of news stories, often not fully explained because they had been cut short.

I remember reading on a classic Page Three of the old Daily Telegraph, a brief court report about a man accused of scaring lady horse-riders by leaping out of hedges in country lanes dressed in a full frogman’s outfit, including flippers, goggles and breathing tube. That was, pretty much, the whole news item. If ever a story needed more background printed, this was it.

The Pear Shaped Comedy club is a bit like the Daily Telegraph in that it is an extraordinary hodge-podge of fascinating items apparently thrown together randomly but somehow holding together as a recognisable whole with its own personality. Quirky, eccentric and barely under control. Last night, in addition to the consistently good and massively under-praised Brian Damage & Krysstal themselves, the show included increasingly-highly-thought-of Stephen Carlin, rising new comics Laurence Tuck and Phillip Wragg and very new but intriguing Samantha Hannah.

And then there was long-time comic, club owner, compere, comedy craftsman and humour guru Ivor Dembina. He had come down to try out some new material as he is performing in four shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, including the fascinatingly unformatted Ivor’s Other Show. He told me:

“I might just invite on people I’ve met in the street. Anything that takes my fancy.” Then he added, “Do you want to come on it one afternoon, John? Can you do anything?”

“No,” Pear Shaped co-owner Vicky de Lacey correctly interrupted, “he can write but he can’t actually do anything.”

But that never stopped Little and Large, so I may yet appear on Ivor’s Other Show, perhaps as a human statue. There is, inevitably, a ‘living statue’ resource page on the internet.

We live in wonderful times.

I refer you to the start of this blog.

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When Bernard Manning took Charlie Chuck backstage at James Whale’s show

Yesterday afternoon, I had a tea-room crawl around London’s West End with comedian Charlie Chuck. He had come down for a meeting in Soho about appearing in a TV ad.

He told me his girlfriend now has 21 ducks and a Buddha statue in her back garden. To celebrate, we went down to see the ducks in St James’s Park which is a fine example of ornithological multi-culturalism where any number of imaginable and unimaginable breeds intermingle, mostly politely, and occasional light grey pigeons wander randomly about, looking slightly stunned at the surrounding plumage, like drab, grey-suited City gents who have accidentally wandered into the VIP hospitality tent behind the Pyramid Stage in Glastonbury.

Dave (Charlie Chuck’s real name) told me more about his unbilled second show at the upcoming Edinburgh FringeDave Kear’s Guide to the Universe – which I blogged about last week and which he will perform in theSpaces@SurgeonsHall for six days. He has plans to develop this year’s show into an hour-long play called Mister Nobody at the 2012 Fringe and has been discussing with a 1960s ‘celebrity vicar’ what that might involve.

Sitting in St James’s Park, watching a three-mallard duck-fight on the water, Dave suddenly remembered that, when he was a 20-year-old drummer with innocent hopes of a hit parade career ahead of him, he had slept overnight on a deckchair in this very park, the night before an early morning meeting with a record producer in what was then Tin Pan Alley.

He also regaled me with tales of touring Britain for a year in the 1970s as drummer with The Missouri Breaks – backing band for 1950s British rock ‘n’ roll legend Wee Willie Harris. Support acts for Wee Willie Harris on that tour were comedians Bernard Manning and Duncan ‘chase me chase me’ Norvelle.

That sounds to me like one hell of an eclectic tour.

Manning’s act involved going on stage with two large, fearsome-looking bouncers who stood on either side of him while he insulted the audience and the other acts. Seeing the size of the bouncers, no-one ever objected to the insults.

“I met Bernard again on James Whale‘s 40th Birthday Party show,” Dave told me, “and he asked me into his dressing room and told me You’re doing a great job. That’s a great character. I were chuffed. It were very nice of him.”

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How a comedy night out in London’s Soho led to what some might call this misanthropic anti-Japanese blog

I had been going to write a blog about American comic Lewis Schaffer’s show Free Until Famous which runs in Soho every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Almost as a joke, he started saying it was the longest-running solo comedy show in London’s West End. Then he realised that, in fact, it probably was.

He’s been performing it in various nightly configurations since October 2008. Initially, he played it Tuesdays and Wednesdays then, because too many people were turning up, he occasionally played it twice-nightly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays – at 8.00pm and 9.30pm. For the last few weeks, he’s been running it every Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday night at 8.00pm.

He successfully brought the model of Edinburgh’s Free Fringe to London. You don’t pay anything as you go into the venue but as you leave at the end, if you liked the show, you pay whatever you think it was worth.

Lewis tells me: “When I started, there were no free shows in London and now there are millions. What makes my show unique is that all the other shows are group shows with maybe one or two acts the punters will like and the rest not to their liking. I am akin to a single malt in a world of blends. If you like it, you love it; if you don’t you won’t; but the ones who like it…”

Whenever I have gone, his audience is always, eclectic and bizarrely international. Last Wednesday, that meant three Saudi women who were coming to his show for the third time. They don’t live in London but, every few months, when they are over here, they make a pilgrimage to Lewis’ comedy show. He doesn’t know why. I don’t know why. Even they probably don’t know why.

I asked Lewis about this after the show.

“They have told me directly We are fans!,” he said, bemused. “But they cover their faces after every joke! Maybe it’s the guilty pleasure of listening to dirty things from a double infidel – I’m an American AND I’m a Jew – plus maybe they find my Semitic look attractive, with my naturally dark hair.”

(Lewis tried not dying his hair the other week; I told him it really wasn’t a success.)

He always moans to me that it’s hard to get people in – moan moan moan these bloody Colonials – but, when I went last Wednesday night, it was a full house – it always is when I wander along – and Lewis was on unusually good form. Normally, he plays a blindingly good first half then loses confidence and tries to persuade the audience they’re not enjoying themselves as much as they think they are. Or he starts the show by saying he’s shit tonight but, by at least halfway through, he’s storming it. Last week, he stormed it for about 95% of the time though, of course, afterwards he was complaining to me that he hadn’t done very well.

Much like Lewis’ rollercoaster shows, it’s always worth any trip to Soho anytime because there are always unexpected and eccentric things happening. Last Wednesday, after the show, my friend and I had to plough through a crowded Brewer Street, which was being used for location shooting of some big-budget Bollywood movie. When I asked one of the crew who the star was, we were told:

“All I know is he’s a mega-star in Bollywood. Their equivalent of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise combined. I don’t know who the fuck he is.”

O vanitas vanitatum. A good overview of superstardom.

Then, in a doorway, we passed two red-faced drunks sitting on a doorstep between a sex shop and a pub, clutching bottles, almost falling sideways as they slurred a drunken conversation with each other. As we passed, I only heard the words:

“Ave you ‘eard 50 Cent’s latest? It ain’t nowhere near as good as his last one.”

Drunks who follow 50 Cent and the latest music trends. Only in Soho.

So I WAS going to blog about all that but decided not to.

Perhaps I should have mentioned this earlier.

Anyway, during the show, Lewis made a joke about how people gave money to Japan following their triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear ‘accident’. Remember we are talking here about a comic who, to my mind, has the best Holocaust joke(s) I have ever heard.

The audience reaction to Lewis’ Japanese joke was to gasp – possibly because it was a truth spoken openly for the first time – and then to laugh. I won’t tell the full joke as it’s one to be heard live on stage.

But there was a news item yesterday that the owners of the stricken Japanese nuclear power plant say it will take another 6-9 months to sort out the mess.

I have a friend who has worked at Oxfam for many years. So I’m not unsympathetic to disaster-hit countries. She was recently in a country even I had barely heard of.

But people in the UK donating aid and holding charity gigs to raise money to supply aid to Japan? Give me a break.

Japan has the third biggest economy in the world, after the US and China. It has a stronger economy that Germany, France and – in 6th place – the United Kingdom.

Haiti is largely ignored now. It is still an impoverished disaster area. And people have been donating money to Japan? That’s an example of people donating money to charity to make themselves feel better not to make a disastrous situation any better.

Countries in Africa and Asia where babies are routinely living for a few days or hours or being born dead because of the poverty are not as ‘sexy’ as Japan was for a few weeks because the TV pictures were not there on TV screens.

There were 62 tornado reports in North Carolina on Saturday. Communities across Oklahoma and the Carolinas have been devastated.

Do I feel sorry for people in those areas? Am I sad at the deaths? Yes.

Am I going to donate money to the world’s strongest economy to alleviate my own sadness and cheer myself up about the USA’s tragedy? No.

Will I donate money to children in certain parts of Africa? Yes.

If some tragedy occurs in Hampstead or Islington, I would not expect the good people of Haiti to have a whip-round or put on charity gigs to raise money to help.

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