Sunday, November 12, 2006

Stage Presence #7

Health warning: these reviews are laden with puns, some intentional, most inexcusable.

“As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela” by Mark Thomas

The Tobacco Factory, Bristol, 26/10/2006

I’ve seen several of Mark Thomas’ live shows, though these have tended to be ‘works in progress’, performed in the pleasingly retro working mens’ club environment of The Comedy Box, above the Hen & Chicken pub in Ashton. As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela is part of a ‘proper’ tour and has consequently resulted in a shift to a larger venue, albeit only a few hundred yards down the road. The Comedy Box’s fag-smoke laden (more imagined since it’s ban on smoking) air provides an intimate, almost confessional atmosphere, the microphone almost superfluous as the comedian performs to an audience of no more than a hundred. The Tobacco Factory couldn’t be more different, adopting the air of a university lecture theatre, with seemingly three times the number of people squeezed into rigid rows of plastic seating and jostling to catch sight of the performer on stage. However, given that his shows are effectively political commentaries and calls to action, Thomas is equally at home in either venue and plays to his strengths. Tying in with his debut novel of the same name, and recent Channel 4 documentary After School Arms Club, As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela sees the global arms trade squarely in Thomas’ sights. The show covers Thomas’ attempts to challenge the law governing political demonstrations in Parliament Square, his attendance at an arms trade fair and efforts to expose loopholes in arms trade laws that culminated in a controversial unbroadcast BBC Newsnight article about the Hinduja Brothers. There’s no doubting Mark Thomas’ commitment (or research – the show is positively loaded with facts and stats), but his disarming delivery prevents it coming across as political ranting and/or bullying. Where Thomas succeeds is in populating his narratives with well defined characters, challenging stereotypes and separating the (often relatively likeable) people from their questionable occupations. If you’ve not seen Mark Thomas before, then try to. As his website states, if you’re not pissed off, you’re not paying attention. Time to wake up and smell the smoking gun.

Official Mark Thomas website

“Shame” by Russell Brand

Bristol Hippodrome, 29/10/2006

Russell Brand is undoubtedly the comedian du jour, thanks to a strikingly retro style makeover and his brand of high octane presentation seen on Channel 4’s Big Brother’s Big Mouth and Russell Brand’s Got Issues, as well as his BBC Radio 6 show (moving imminently to Radio 2). Much as I enjoy his on-screen presence, I’ll admit to wondering if this could translate to a full stand up show, particularly in a humongous venue like the Bristol Hippodrome. Phill Jupitus is a case in point: often funny on quiz shows like Never Mind The Buzzcocks; died on his arse during his Quadrophobia tour at the Bristol Old Vic in 2000, thanks to a complete humour bypass. But I digress. Warm up was provided by Trevor Lock, Brand’s Radio 6 sidekick, but half baked is probably a more apt description. Lock’s dapper appearance and delivery disappointingly resemble little more than Russell Brand Lite™. An over reliance on bland ‘stream of consciousness’ musings and a frankly tiresome heckler do not make for an inspiring show, so it was relief when Mr. Brand himself finally appeared on stage. There’s no denying that Russell Brand is an eye-catching, engaging personality., describing himself as an ‘S&M Willy Wonka’ or ‘Victorian pimp’. In fact, the long, back-combed bouffant and all-black attire, including neck scarf, ammunition belt, skin tight ladies’ jeans and winkle pickers will remind those of a certain age (and musical taste) of a Fields Of The Nephilim / Dogs D’Amour* hybrid. Brand gets off to a slow start, exploring the Hippodrome’s ornamental balconies framing the stage, then returning to a bar stool and flicking through a copy of the Bristol Evening Post. Amusing though Brand’s critiques of the day’s ‘big’ stories are, and despite his insistence that the show itself has yet to start, stretching this ‘prelude’ over half an hour is a tad indulgent. However, Brand really hits his stride as the focus shifts to himself, more specifically, his addictions to drugs (former) and sex (ongoing). Despite some graphic descriptions (and miming) of his exploits, Brand conveys this sometimes cautionary, sometimes celebratory tales in an amusing and accessible manner. I have to confess at this point that, thanks to a stinking cold, I was heavily medicated and am embarrassed to admit that I nodded off on a couple of occasions (thankfully brief and drool free). This should not be seen as a reflection on Russell Brand’s excitable and exciting show. Unlike Mark Thomas, who seems capable of running and running, there’s an inherent fear that Russell Brand will implode in the not too distant future. In light of this, I’d recommend that you catch this talented performer while you can. Russell Brand may have issues, but an active and appreciative audience seems to be damned good therapy.

* I discovered whilst writing this that Tyla from the Dogs D'Amour played an acoustic gig in Bristol the night before. Maybe he and Russell Brand are a shape shifting single entity, after all. Spooky.

Official Russell Brand website

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