Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Brian Blessed – Timelord

August 8, 2020 Leave a comment

I note with interest that the UK tabloids have picked up on the fact that Brian Blessed hasn’t been out of the house in a while and is freely available to chat away online. Namely, there’s a headline floating around stating that Brian ‘shocked the BBC’ with his pitch for Doctor Who.

They are several problems with this. One is that it’s pretty hard to shock the BBC. Partially because corporations aren’t people1 but mostly because the people working for the Beeb have pretty much heard it all. The general public have many ideas and aren’t backwards about sharing them.2. Also this is an anecdote from the 1960s. But my main problem is this is a gag taken way out of context. And before we get started, yes, Brian has frequently made the point that name Who sounds like the Chinese surname Hu. It’s one of his standard celeb stories and he’s been telling it for decades.

I’ve seen Brian Blessed on stage quite a few times and have chatted away with him more than once, mostly back-stage3. It is possible to have a normal volume conversation with the man and he’s a very interesting and well-travelled chap.

Brian is a regular on the UK sci-fi convention scene and he has a ‘routine’, which is a highly charismatic ramble about the state of the world, science fiction and science in general. It’s something of a ‘feel good’ rally; Mr Blessed is a kind man with a wealth of life experience and mostly what he says is practical motivational stuff in which he tells us that the world can still be a bright and good place.

Brian Blessed

The Brian Blessed impersonator helpline is currently experiencing a very high call volume.

I once had the total pleasure of watching professional insult merchant John Robertson interview him on stage and goodness me was that fun; the two riffed on each other very well indeed and Blessed was a delight. John was in his element; he fed the lines and Mr B kept producing the funnies. All of which came with an added measure of joy, rude-words, mischief and love. Blessed’s bombastic nature is tempered by wisdom and respect.

Brian doesn’t simply swear; he produces artisan crafted profanity designed to delight. One of the few true Profanomancers, a wizard with the pun and the naughty word. Which brings us to ‘the Doctor Who thing’. Inevitably whilst on stage some member of the general public will ask if Blessed would ever play Doctor Who and you will get one of two responses; he’ll either talk about Blake’s 7 (which is close enough and he was actually in that), or he’ll claim that he wanted the character to be called Doctor Hu. Because that’s a Chinese name. And that’s the whole bit, a pun on Hu/Who4. Sometimes he’ll then point out that if they actually did that it should of course go to a more appropiate actor5. We would see Brian’s serious face. Then he’ll talk about his travels across the world. Then he’ll talk about Tibet and kicking the Dalai Lama in the bum. Which is a whole other story which again, taken out of context sounds terrible but is actually just a very silly story told by an elderly actor who’s been doing that all his life.

Because that’s the gig, and that’s the act. And a little thing like a global pandemic isn’t going stop Brian Blessed from telling ridiculous stories.

1: Let’s recognise corporate personhood for the nonsense it is. Though the idea of Amazon Prime suddenly manifesting a body and going to parties does amuse me. I’d imagine he’d be able to transform into a truck.
2: All I need to say is “Mrs Brown’s Boys”.
3: Be under no illusion; he has no idea who I am beyond ‘oh yes, Starburst.’
4: He also once declared he’d quite like to play The Corsair6 in Doctor Who, but of course that was a run up to some jokes about The Pirates of Penzance.
5: Not that anyone asked me, but let’s have Jessica Henwick as the next Doctor.
6: Once someone explained to him what a TimeLord Space Pirate was. Did you know Brian has trained to go into space? Because of course he has.

BANANAMAN – The Musical

I first heard of an adaptation of Bananaman in the works a couple of years ago. Originally intended as a movie, they aimed much lower as it developed and turned it into a musical.

We are currently living in a world where comic-books are king. However, notably, missing from the huge roster of comic book reboots are characters from The Beano.1 This national treasure has never taken itself seriously and is packed with very silly fun. Enter Bananaman The Musical, an attempt to add this unique voice in the world of comics to growing chorus of superhero stories. The result is highly pleasing; A hilarious musical for Generation X and their kids.

For those who weren’t lucky enough to be young in 80’s Britain, Bananaman is a deeply silly take on boyish power fantasy comics such as Bill Parker’s Shazam, Siegel & Shuster’s Superman or Mick Anglo’s Marvelman. Eric Wimp is a schoolboy who, when he eats a banana, turns into a yellow and blue musclebound idiot who can bend steel and fly. Many of us will remember the 1983 cartoon, featuring the vocal talents of the Goodies. Sightline Entertainment, the producers of this show certainly did. As we entered the Southwark Playhouse’s main stage, the interlude music was a collection of 80’s kids TV show theme tunes.


The show opens with an explanation of how boring Eric Wimp’s life is, how dull Acacia Road and introduces the characters. Notably, Fiona the Newsreporter is re-imagined as a schoolgirl reporter with own YouTube channel, and is an actual character rather than a prop. In proper Beano style the girls are just as awesome as the guys, thank you very much.

Jodie Jacobs tackles the difficult task of Crow exceptionally well. This is a crow that flaps around and sings, and the puppet is very charming, very witty and carries much of the narrative on its slender feathered shoulders. Mark Newnham sells the earnest rubbishness of Eric Wimp perfectly, and Matthew McKenna is clearly having the time of his life as Bananaman. His comic timing his perfect.2

The show is stolen, in part, by the villains. Which is exactly what you want. Marc Pickering is Doctor Gloom, and chews the scenery as the smartest buffoon in the room and has all the best songs. Carl Mullaney’s General Blight tempers Pickering’s performance with an absurd sense of manic outrage and the two bounce off each of as cackling baddies throughout.

The songs are fun, cracking and catchy. They tell the story but are the sort of songs you’d listen to again and again. They mock the recent seriousness of the superhero genre with a playful sense of fun and are quite memorable.

They are some flaws with the storytelling; Eric’s intelligence is established early on, in fact his nerd and geek credentials have their own song. When Eric turns into Bananaman, fans know that the hero has the muscles of twenty men and brains of twenty mussels, but this isn’t established until much later. It’s a minor detail, but one that could be easily fixed. The scenes at the end rush slightly too quickly, but that’s fine. By now you’ve climbed aboard the Banana boat of fun and are laughing so hard it’s tricky to keep up with the gags.

The venue also delivered a few sound issues early on, but these where swiftly resolved. That said, this isn’t a super-slick production and nor should it be. The source material is chaotic and silly and that’s part of the appeal. A highly professional production throughout though one with a deliberately anarchic vibe.

I particularly loved the way some of the ensemble cast where dressed as ‘brown-coat and flat cap’ janitors when moving bits of the set around, and that they were actual character.

A splendid fourth-wall shout out that was instantly recognisable to the target audience. Costume Supervisors Nia Evans and Daisy Woodroffe have done an amazing job getting the look the characters spot on, right down to the socks and the titular hero looks as silly as he does wonderful. They are some lovely Easter Eggs in the show’s design, from the mortar-board hat on the teachers to a sign pointing to Bash Street. Director Mark Perry has nailed it; this is The Beano come to life.

Bananaman The Musical is a lovely ripe banana, dipped in nostalgia and fun, served with glee and manic silliness. Sadly it looks like it won’t tour. The press junket we attended seemed focused mostly on the London theatre scene, and this is definetly a show aimed more firmly at what marketing types call ‘Facebook Families’3.

This sort of thing is exactly what British Theatre needs – fun, friendly and commercial. It’s a huge shame that not even the soundtrack is available anymore. Hopefully someone will bring it back to life.

1: A fine and fun kids comic from DC Thompson, and an amazing example of British humour.

2: I confess that the first quick-change caught me unawares and I was utterly impressed. Then I realised that Wimp and Bannanman are played by different people. I am a muppet.

3: Middle Class families looking for something for the kids that won’t bore the adults. But cost is king. We all know a Facebook Family, they’re the ones with their little ‘uns in the profile.

Categories: Geek, Old Reviews, Theatre

The Ballad of Halo Jones, The Stage Play

January 2, 2012 1 comment

Manchester based pub and venue The Lass O’Gowrie is often on the cutting edge of nerd-cool, and plays host to a wide variety of geek friendly events1, so it was the natural venue of choice for the debut stage production of The Ballad of Halo Jones.

Halo Jones is a much-loved science fiction comic strip by notorious Northampton genius Alan Moore, and is famous for its epic, inter-galactic feel, domestic storyline, and social commentary. So adapting it into a stage-play was always going to be a feat, especially one designed for a small, intimate venue.

The limited space and obvious shoe-string budget have been skilfully turned into an advantage by the production company Scytheplays. A tale that takes us from the depths of a futuristic slum to the heights of space could easily have been achieved given a lavish budget, but is instead portrayed far more effectively through inspired acting and clever verbal cues in the script.

Art by Adrian Salmon

"Where did she go? Out. What did she do? Everything."

The actors are brilliantly cast. Those of you who fell in love with Halo in the pages of 2000AD should be prepared to be equally enchanted by Louise Hamer’s performance. Benjamin Patterson tackles the difficult task of playing the menacing robot dog2 Toby with great skill and care and clearly is having a ball doing so. For me, the most stand-out performance is by Danny Wallace, who plays the doomed, hopeless and sexless creature, The Glyph. It’s a role that requires comic timing, empathy and a gentle touch, and Wallace is perfect throughout.

The script strips the story down into two acts, each about an hour long and covers the first two books3. Fans of the original will be pleased to learn that no major changes to the storyline have been made, and the odder characters (Rats, Dolphins and TV newscasters) are handled in a believable sort of way. Those who’ve never read the book should brace themselves for strange future-speak and a bizarre, yet socially relevant story. The future-shock will pass as the play goes on, but I suspect the social commentary will stay with you.

The Ballad of Halo Jones is as important now as it was when it was first written in 1984, and is a tale that deserves to be heard by a wider audience. If you’re lucky enough to live in Manchester, and have a spare evening, do go and see the show.

1: “The Lass” has vintage video game nights, Doctor Who themed evenings and has played host to the likes of Professor Elemental and Mr B, The Gentleman Rhymer. If you’re lucky enough to live in Manchester, you should take advantage of The Lass.
2: In the graphic novel, Toby is a beautifully drawn robot dog. In the stage-play, they have more obvious limitations, and handle it through a carefully thought out interpretation of the source material. It also helps for Patterson’s performance is spot on.
3: The original work is in three books, the third being a strange, starship troopers style space war. It’d be hard to do well on the stage, and they wisely avoid it. This doesn’t detract from the production at all, especially when you consider that the original book was never properly finished.

Categories: Reviews, Theatre

One man versus unspeakable terrors

November 3, 2011 2 comments

If you’re a geek (or at least claim to be one) chances are that you’ll have read (or have claimed to have read) the HP Lovecraft short story The Call of Cthullhu. It’s a tale that defined an entire sub-genre of creepy, existential horror, and has inspired a great many creative types to come up with music, poetry, comic books and games.

What you rarely see is the story brought to stage or screen. After all, a tale about madness and lurking horror isn’t easy to pull off, and all too often, theatre and stage productions settle for a miserable compromise that is ‘inspired by the works of HP Lovecraft’ rather than getting on with the tricky task of telling the classic yarn in such a way that you get the same tingle of fear the original prose evokes.

Poor, doomed Inspector Legrasse

So it was with a no small amount of excitement1 that I went to see Michael Sabbaton’s one man production of The Call of Cthullhu at the Lowry this Halloween. Sabbaton has taken the simplest of approaches to the story; it’s him, a chair, a trunk and a box, and as fans of horror stories know, one should never open the box.

With the clever use of sound, smoke and lighting, the viewer is transported to Lovecraft Country, a place filled with madness, dread and fear. Sabbaton plays a variety of characters from the story, each one evoking the feeling of creeping darkness and inevitable insanity that one demands from a play named The Call of Cthullhu. The performance is remarkable and extremely well done, and it’s always interesting to hear someone pronounce “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn”1 without irony or geeky self-referencing (and instead, makes it sound like the ravings of the damned).

Part of the reason it works so well is because it’s simply one man, with many faces. A more complicated production would have detracted from the simple horror required to tell the story, and instead what we get is strong lesson in story telling.

The show is also quite short, it’s 50 minutes long, and well worth your time. The website for the show, promises further tour dates, so it’s worth a look to see if it’ll be near you sometime soon.

1: I was also with some marvellous company, of course.
2: Part of a fictional language called Aklo, invented by welsh writer Arthur Machen, who happened to be one of Lovecraft’s inspirations. As it happens, Penguin is releasing a collected book of Machen’s works in time for Christmas.

Categories: Reviews, Theatre

He looked out and said to me “run for your life!”

October 15, 2011 2 comments

These days, it seems you can’t be a fictional hero without having your own tourist attraction. Batman and Spiderman have their own roller coaster rides, Harry Potter has an entire theme park.

So what about The Doctor from the titular show, Doctor Who? Well, in a sort of way, he does. Crash of the Elysium is a Doctor Who themed theatrical production in which the audience play the starring role. Half ghost-train and half stage-play, you come face to face with one of the show’s most terrifying monsters, all the while running for your life. The overall experience is very evocative of everything we love about the show; thrills, chills, scary monsters and friendly time travelling space-wizards. The production is a theme-park ride with class and style, which is what you’d expect for such a venerable TV-show.

(c) BBC

The acting is superb and engaging

Crash of the Elysium is of course, brought to you by Punchdrunk a theatrical company who specialise in this sort of thing. The show begins gently (like all good theme park rides) and then picks up very quickly, one moment you’re browsing some dry looking museum exhibits and the next moment,you are in an environmental encounter suit, face to face with mild peril. I won’t say much more about the plot, but if you do get to see the show, I defy anyone to attend and not get completely sucked in.

The production is also firmly part of the current Doctor Who series. Co-written by show supremo Steven Moffat, it features nods and winks to the ongoing series all the way through. This is no ‘tribute’ to the show, this is another episode of the current incarnation of The Doctor presented in a unique way.

Crash of the Elysium is one of many show’s that premiered earlier this year at The Manchester International Festival, and you will be able to catch it as part of the London 2012 Olympic cultural celebrations. If you can, do bring along a small child, or borrow a friend’s small child if you don’t have one of your own. I attended the ‘Over 13’s’ show and it was mostly adults, despite the show being written for children, as some of the plot points are aimed squarely at the young. That said, everyone attending immediately turned into delighted (and well-behaved) children, utterly enchanted by the production, the plot and the acting. My only criticism is that it only an hour long, and that I’m going to have to wait till next year to go on this ride again.

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