Rich Hall. Live at the Spa Theatre, Scarborough. 12-03-13

It is about twenty years since I last saw Rich Hall live, at the Edinburgh festival. He has done very well for himself since and no wonder. There is a real niche in Britain for an American stand up who understands irony and has a wryly placed foot in both cultures and he has been filling that niche beautifully for a long time now. He has the one asset which is more valuable to a stand up than anything else- likeability. If you have that one basic advantage you can take risks, be as grouchy as you like, and effectively get away with murder on stage. Not that he does- he is much too clever- but he could if he needed to and there is great freedom in that. We will cut him as much slack as he needs to make a set work.

His set on a miserable, wintery, March evening in the Spa Theatre in Scarborough, a North of England town which has fallen on hard times, was quick to test the pulse of the place. A local coffee shop owner who admitted that he wasn’t selling much coffee was treated to a leading role in a partly improvised song and when someone yelled out Jimmy Saville’s name very late in the set (as they do in these parts, it still rankles) he dealt with it swiftly and honestly although I’m sure he could have done without it. A woman who laughed bizarrely throughout the evening, sometimes messing up his timing, had to be coped with. After Billy Connoly’s bad experience in the town, something Rich Hall mentioned more than once, we are clearly getting a reputation as a tough audience. It wasn’t an easy ride for him, although there were some easy targets to aim at. Sarah Palin and the republican right wing are always good for an outraged laugh over here for example, as are American gun laws and the National Rifle Association. There were a few glorious rants against both the American fast food industry, especially Kraft cheese, and our own partial culpability when we buy dirt cheap, bottom of the range, processed food and find that it has horse meat in it. He tells it like it is, even when going against the grain. It was slightly cool in the Spa Theatre but you could feel the temperature drop a little further when he dealt with phone hacking in a way that the audience weren’t sure about, but we went with it. While there is a basic warmth towards Britain running through his material it goes well beyond the saccharin platitudes we often hear when American performers come over here. Rich knows Britain well. He has taken the citizenship test (for which he watched Carry on Camping in preparation and it turned out he needed to) and he knows us in a way that most outsiders don’t, even though he might find us incomprehensible sometimes. We didn’t get off unscathed, particularly in a very clever song in the second half about the seedier side of Newcastle and Liverpool. There was also a song about hard economic times which had a neat comic punch as well as a hint of quite touching truth, not an easy thing to get right.

Rich Hall is a good bloke to spend time with. Take the chance to do just that if you can. This is a long, hard working tour with reasonably priced tickets and you won’t regret it.

Paul Merton. Out of my Head. Grand Opera House York. 04-05-12

Watching Paul Merton’s show Out of My Head was a very strange experience. I am a big fan of his. I love his surreal take on the world and his quick brain. Pretty much everything that he has done has worked, whether it was his early stand up, his improv work at the Comedy store, or his television documentaries. Then of course there is Have I Got News For You. I share his love of silent films. I bought my tickets months ago and like the rest of the audience I was begging this show to work. There were moments and short sequences when it did, but there were also stretches which were just a bit embarrassing, particularly a sketch involving Prince Charles and Camilla and the Royal Variety show. Apparently they have been rewriting the show while on tour and I’m surprised that one is still there. The problem isn’t Paul himself of course, he is as likeable and sharp as ever, it’s the writing. I could see what he was trying to do, along with his team from the Comedy Store, Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch and Suki Webster, and I could see what a great idea it was if they had managed to bring it off. We were taken through Paul’s life, met little Paul (a ventriloquist’s dummy who provided some of the moments which worked for me and could have been used more to chilling effect) a harsh teacher (a nun who didn’t understand creativity) and the doctors who looked after Paul during his time in the Maudsley hospital. If the writing had managed to link the obvious darkness which is behind some of this material to Paul Merton’s surreal and very funny take on the world and the Variety/summer season techniques which the show uses to take us through his story this would have been a powerful and very funny show. Too often it digresses into areas which take the focus off the inside of Paul’s head where it really should be and into diversions which are just not funny enough. I would have sat the great man on stage with that ventriloquist’s dummy and let the effects, black theatre and voices come directly from him or the dummy. His fellow performers would have been better used off stage providing whatever support was needed. There is a seriously funny show here begging to be let out.

I wish I hadn’t had to write this, I really do.

Mark Thomas. Extreme Rambling- Walking the Wall. West Yorkshire Playhouse. 11-04-11

I don’t think that there is anyone else quite like Mark Thomas. He is often described as a comedian and activist, and giving those two aspects of what he does equal billing is about right. His latest show Extreme Rambling (partly sponsored by a compensation claim following an illegal stop and search by the Metropolitan police) is a fascinating, funny and thought provoking account of his walk along the whole length of the Israeli separation barrier in February and March 2010. The barrier was begun in 2002 in response to the suicide bombings of the second intifada and when it is finished it will be 723 kilometres long. It is over twice as long as the boundary because it cuts in and out of the West Bank, taking in Palestinian land and surrounding Israeli settlement communities. The international court of justice declared the barrier illegal in 2004 because of this. Some of the settlement communities are very large, with thousands of people in established towns. As everybody is well aware this situation has, so far, proved impossible to sort out. Both sides of the dispute are firmly convinced that they have right on their side, and have been for a very long time now.

Thankfully we don’t get a political diatribe going into the details of who thinks what and why, although it is quite clear where Mark Thomas’s sympathies lie. We are allowed to use the experiences he describes, and the facts we are told, to draw our own conclusions. This is a painstakingly rehearsed and sharply clever show, a seriously good laugh. At one point Mark Thomas says that we understand the world through small things and it is these small things that he describes for us. They are small things which sometimes make you laugh at their idiocy, shake your head at their simple weirdness, or despair at what human beings will do to each other, and through them he sheds light into the dark corners of a troubled region. There is a stuffed giraffe (stuffed he points out with more love than skill) in the zoo at Qualqilya which has green ping pong ball eyes. It was declared a martyr after the intifada, during which it ran against a wall in panic, fell, and died, and it now stands in the zoo, half collapsed, as a lasting memorial to human folly. There is a place where the position of the barrier has separated children from their school. So that they can still reach it a tunnel has been dug underneath for them to walk through. Unfortunately it has a tendency to fill with sewage when it rains, so a shelf was made along the side of the tunnel for the children to walk along. This means that the children only have to walk past the sewage and not through it. Lucky them. There is also a village, much visited by outsiders, where people walk up to the wall in protest, fully prepared with an onion in their hand, knowing that they will be tear gassed. The strong smell of the onion reminds them that you can still breathe, even when they don’t feel as if they can. It has become a kind of surreal ritual as well as a sincere expression of anger and frustration.

The chief delight of the evening is Mark Thomas’s ability to bring the people that he meets to life. He is a gifted character actor and we meet a wide variety of them. There are young Israeli conscripts, a hardened journalist, a wonderfully laid back British consul general, and plenty of others, many of whom seem, like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, to be able to sometimes believe six impossible things before breakfast. As you listen you despair of anyone ever being able to sort out this highly principled confusion of resentment, violence, bureaucracy and entrenched beliefs.

This is a great evening, entertaining, moving and enlightening, and the sell out audience at the West Yorkshire Playhouse loved it.  A show with heart and commitment. Long may he continue to do what he does best.

John Hegley. Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 31-04-10

John Hegley began his career as a performance poet at the comedy store thirty years ago and he has been spreading the word about dogs, the glory of wearing glasses, love, loss, Luton bungalows and potatoes ever since. He also plays mandolin, works in schools and performs all over the country with a strange kind of laid back enthusiasm, and just for good measure he is also a charming cartoonist. All of these skills come together wonderfully when you see him on stage. There is nobody else quite like him. Not surprisingly, he now knows exactly what he is doing and his understated but absolute command of an audience is enormous fun to watch. His performance seems random, and sometimes it is, but nothing is left to chance and there is a fierce intelligence running through everything that he does. You have to keep your wits about you and listen hard or you may miss the killer punch to something that seems slight, as hidden in the fun there is  a certain amount of melancholy and some serious points. For instance, his throwaway comment that his performance was dedicated to “those with teaching difficulties” made you laugh at the incongruity but also remember exactly why he was saying it ( see here for more details) and wince a little.

This show The Adventures of Monsieur Robinet is partly based on the show that he took up to the Edinburgh festival last year, but it is also a way of trying out new material for the festival this year and giving us a few old favourites like Amoeba and I Need You. There was a sequence based on a picture of an Owl drawn by his fifteen year old daughter which illustrates very well how he works. It was a lovely picture but when he didn’t say so quickly enough she crossed it out in frustration. Later he made the crossings out into a lattice window and wrote a moving and thoughtful song about the incident, reminding us to share our feelings with those that we love before it is too late. We were shown the drawing (on a trusty and defiantly old fashioned overhead projector) as he explained all this before gathering information from a member of the audience who recognised the quite obscure species, and finally playing the song. The bedrock of the show was the story of the relationship between his French grandmother, a dancer at the Folies Bergere, and his grandfather. He showed us the scene where they met again, after many years of separation, using an empty chair to symbolise his grandfather, and it was both very funny and moving. There was plenty of audience participation- there always is at a Hegley gig- and people were asked to sing, read out some simple French, wave and tap their glasses, mime letters of the alphabet, and more besides. Finally those fortunate enough to be wearing spectacles were invited to dance to Walk Away Renee while swapping glasses with each other. All of them loved it.

There is something wonderfully English John Hegley’s work, even if his ancestry is part French, it’s something about understatement, the way that he celebrates the ordinary minutiae of everyday life and draws conclusions from small things that may sometimes have large truths to show us. When you add to that a large dose of stage presence and killer comic timing you really do have something to treasure. It isn’t the first time that I’ve seen him live and it won’t be the last.