Tim Key at the Arcola Tent, 12 March 2014

Autosexual pioneer Tim Key makes no secret of the fact that he is an arsehole. As such, he is familiar, occasionally irritating and disappointingly necessary.

His strangled route to his extended, sold-out metropolitan residencies gives some indicator of his peculiar and wide appeal – Russian student, writer, open-mike mosquito, sketch comic and now film star.

His current show, Single White Slut is a development of his slowly evolving theme of an effortlessly powerful, off-beat meta-poet whose sexual prowess is so compelling that it’s practically a nuisance to him while an unparalleled thrill to all woman.

With a blend of artfully dreadful poetry, personal horn-blowing and borderline sexual harrassment, this horrid man manages to select the worst traits of the character he has cultivated for himself and warps it into a Lynchian bubble complete with owl fancying and reckless priapism.

Always somehow one step ahead, Key heckles his own audience in order to keep them in check, to experiment with form and challenge them to give him something harder. All of this combines to fully engage the consistently packed Arcola Tent night after night with a thoroughly expert performance.

Key joins the likes of George Carlin as some of the few comedians can pull off working in the round without resorting to clumsily acknowledging the space. Indeed he extends the format with playful abandon, interfering with the stage and generally indulging himself in an hour and a half of well executed peacocking.

On stage Tim Key needs no recommendation, and off it he’s no arsehole. Clear your diary if you manage to get hold of tickets.

Alexei Sayle – Soho Theatre

Alexei Sayle, self-proclaimed godfather of alternative stand up, has emerged from a 16-year period of performance hibernation to illuminate the basement stage of the Soho Theatre, an apt and flawlessly modern setting for one of the few who fearlessly forged the art form from the universal revulsion of Thatcherism and malaise of the ‘80s.

Sayle is a one-off, a warm-hearted, heart-on-sleeve type of public grandad who unwittingly became the progenitor of so many grumpy old men, sweetly jaded misanthropes and that odious, sell-out arse-licker Ben Elton.

It’s a pleasure to see Sayle back on the stage, freely pouring his familiar flavour of hot oil into the mouths of the lunatics who seek to undermine society’s beating heart purely to serve their own malicious agenda.

It seems prescient that he has chosen this particular year to return to the stage – a Tory government is once again siphoning cow juice from the mouths of babes, led by a grotesque, puce monster, and popular culture has eaten itself and regurgitated the remains. Everything that Sayle railed against in the ‘80s has returned with a damaging vigour.

While rampant social destruction has become more sophisticated in its conniving, Sayle has not moved in step with the reflexive post-post-modernist cynicism which now constitutes contemporary stand up. But why should he?

Sayle is a set piece in and of himself, a character whose reputation as a left-wing firebrand precedes him. In the ugly moral void which today passes for modernity, his default socialism almost seems archaic and naive, but it serves as a vital reminder that humanity is essential and indefatigable in its goodness.

One could anticipate that 16 years spent waiting in the wings for an appropriate monster to come along to be vilified might temper the central conceit of any gently aging comic’s vitriol, but Liverpool’s favourite gnome could never be guilty of such a thing.

Edinburgh Festival Round-up 2012

While the rest of these reluctantly united isles have brayed through the spectacle of The Games Which Should Not Speak Their Name, the wonderful city of Edinburgh once again splays itself before the greatest arts festival ever to set foot into reality.

Curling into every available corner of Auld Reekie is the much cherished Fringe and this year’s highlights have redefined what constitutes excellence in comedy and theatre and the magical amalgam of the two.

At The Underbelly Doctor Brown’s divinely named Befrdfgth and Claudia O’Doherty’s The Telescope are certainly five-star shows.

The former’s astounding control of both himself and his awkwardly terrified audience is what the festival fringe is all about – absurdist, provocative and fearlessly confrontational comic terrorism.

In an ambitious and theatrical advance from his long-standing one-man tennis match performance, Brown subtly takes the clowning form and dismantles it into a recursive, self-replicating marvel which is at once disgusting, beautiful and deeply genuine.

Very rarely does a mute and smirkingly malevolent force of nature get away with literally and savagely kicking his audience up the arse and even less frequently does such an artist elicit elated hoots from 100 or so fringe-hardened punters so consistently and with such great economy.

To say that Befrdfgth is an awesome act of art crime would be an understatement. Keep an eye on this horrific bearded beauty.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the truly magical The Indescribable Phenomenon (Greenside), a heartbreaking and wrong-footing exposition of the life of Anna Eva Fay, the first woman to be inducted into the Magic Circle.

Coupling casually magnificent magic with a true story of tragedy, humour and humanity, this show is a shrewdly put together powder keg of heart-wrenching power which will no doubt see its way onto the silver screen within a year or so.

Troubling the eminent Doctor Brown for the Fringe crown is Claudia O’Doherty, a secret genius with a sexy brass telescope which doubles as a portal through time and space.

O’Doherty’s experimental spectacular completely breaks the stand-up form and reshuffles the edges of paranoia.

Effortlessly spanning centuries of narrative, her upside-down approach is beyond refreshing, mixing freewheeling surrealism with a sophisticated structure which resembles a human brain undergoing a stroke.

Still reeling from last year’s Panel Prize – with sponsorship lamentably snatched away from the admittedly pretentious Perrier to the absurdly cheap Foster’s brand – are Max and Ivan.

Their Con Artists show at the Pleasance Courtyard is a technical step up from their acclaimed production of Sherlock And Watson and with it comes a sly nod to the arch criminal Jim Moriarty, in this instance a Cockney foil for a heist which tactically draws in every Bond caricature in a mercurial work of tremendous ferocity.

Also very much of note are The Yellow Show, a heartwarming spoken-word show from Rob Auton and The Magical Adventures Of Pete Heat.

New Variety’s New Act Of The Year Final – Stratford Circus, London E15

This year’s New Act of the Year final was held in the bizarre Olympic leisure farm which has taken over east London’s Stratford to accommodate the four weeks of industrial-level grotesquery which is drawing ever nearer.

The calibre of acts are surprisingly consistent, with a thicker than usual slab of the usually dreaded musical comedy.

The veteran tortoise that is stand-up Arthur Smith hosts this year’s event with his charming, road-worn patter which stays familiar and accessible while unthreateningly reminding those youngsters how the pros do it.

Precocious and affable Canadian Bobby Mair offers up some refreshingly old-school and sharply delivered material which softly rings the bell of the naive, McDonalds-eating MTV slacker generation of the early ’90s while being just a touch too young to have actually been there.

A delightfully dry Mark Stephenson shows no fear of losing an audience. His leftfield whimsy seems to draw them in further to his topsy-turvy world in which he approaches language obliquely and bravely to nervous laughter and strong effect.

Female double-act Adams and Rea bring the musical acts into line with a sweet chemistry.

Their litter rap very nearly brings the house down though their debt to the Flight of the Conchords can’t be dismissed.

Patrick Cahill provides a comic first in bringing along his own invisible mike stand before embarking on a genuinely ambitious monologue about how to truly live before dying – an existentialist experiment involving dog turds which is reminiscent of the freewheeling fire of Phil Kay.

The most bizarre turn of the evening by a long way was the frankly baffling Russela, a highly toned drag act who somehow manages to defy her teetering platforms to simply make a pancake from scratch on stage. A refreshing change at least.

An entirely unexpected twist came in the shape of a tiny dog named Eric, who held the audience firmly in his paw as he simply nudged a balloon with his nose for a full five minutes.

A talented fellow, even if he doesn’t know it.

Social saboteur Cahill deservedly took home the self-consciously crap but esteemed winner’s certificate – a spot-on decision on the part of the judges.

Watch out for him.

Better Living Through Comedy – The Green Note, Camden NW1

Fat Kitten improv group has gone through uncountable line-ups, a sweet Dadaism which reflects the ephemeral nature of their partiular comic beast and has served their structured lack of structure laudably in the past.

But it seems the hey day of the troupe has passed, or is at least waiting to return to its typical top form of previous years.

Gone is the wild-eyed bedlamite Sophie Buchan — who could always be relied upon for a solo stand-up turn of rare and genuine surrealism, or a unexpected bend in any group manouevres — to be replaced with a frankly disappointing Lydia Nicholas, a performer who seems, dare I say it, just too young and green to compete on so wintry a field.

The otherwise impeccable compering of the nocturnal James Ross — who recently managed to burn his own flat down — was brought into question by the sheer amount of time Nicholas held the stage for, despite corpsing, repetition and the high treason of just not being funny.

As was once insisted of Jaki Liebezeit in a defining moment: “You must play monotonous.”

Simplicity 101 is a class which Nicholas needs to attend in order to tread water with her fellow Kittens.

Tom Craine offered a refreshing 10ccs of adrenaline into the arm of an evening almost scuttled by its first third (avant-comic attempts of, dear reader, I’ll spare you details) with some good old-fashioned scripted and rehearsed material.

Headliners Jigsaw are a trio of highly-competent sketch comics, Dan Antopolski, Tom Craine and Nat Luurtsema, and their material is sharp, funny and expertly delivered with absolutely no fat.

The fire of their chemisty sloshes over the rim of the stage, their short set humbly redeeming every crime of the evening.

Antopolski expresses the archetype of the cheeky bastard, while Craine bring a collapsing levity to Luurtsema’s non-literal channeling of Lady Macbeth.

Definitely ones to look out for on a screen or stage somewhere soon.

Tell your friends.

Max And Ivan Are Holmes And Watson – Leicester Square Theatre

Following an outrageous success at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe — at which they managed to scoop the Foster’s Panel Prize for their off the wall one-off The Wrestling — sketch duo Max and Ivan have returned to London for a modestly short run of their literary parody Holmes and Watson. 

Ordinarily any rehash of the lives and adventures of the world’s most famous homoerotic crime-solving team would elicit abyssal groans from all but the greenest of comedy lovers. 

Let on that the company is freshly graduated and you’ve got yourself an uninflated lead balloon. 

Lucky then that Max Olesker and Ivan Gonzalez are ambitious and hugely convincing performers — Olesker completed the second half of their fringe festival outing in Edinburgh last sumnmer and all subsequent shows with crutches and a profoundly broken ankle — and they have managed to secure a small but razor-sharp production team able to do justice to their rapid-fire changes and witty staging. 

Leaping across decades of narrative and history, the show sees an ageing Holmes stripped of his mental agility and thrust against his will into a final caper which takes in early 20th-century mobsters, elderly prostitutes and old-fashioned super-villains.  

All are expertly crafted to sidestep cliche and the fraying of old rope. 

Throw in an irreverent and original sense of the absurd and you’ve got yourself a Max and Ivan show which is already a classic. 

And it is definitely much greater than the sum of its two very talented parts.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2011 Round-up

Somewhere amid the17th century scene of desperate drama students and borderline Bedlam inmates which indicates Auld Reekie’s Royal Mile there is an arts festival afoot. Its gems are sleeping in until 2am, shrewdly saving their energy for the show rather than further bewildering shell-shocked theatre goers with tons of promo and the sentiment of ”here, you throw this away,” to plagiarise Mitch Hedberg. In the disproportionately high quality Niddry Street we find a microcosm of London’s best comedy and spoken word in the understated marvel that is Bang  Said The Gun – self styled mud wrestling with words – hosting Norwich post-Raphaelite Luke Wright, upping his own game with a rural musicless hip hop.

On the antipode of the South Bridge we find owl-eyed pizza monger Tom Bell exhibiting his personal hour of cinematic catharsis in a show which leaps from Neptune in his own stand up show to imaginary liaisons with a calzone girl. 

The flawlessly paced spiral sets up the next instalment in the Bell saga with a spring of anticipation. 

Bell waxes philosophical after an end of run show as he begins to resemble a skull: “It’s been a funny fringe. The riots in London brought everyone up here together, as if we felt guilty for not being back home to help. It’s different to previous years as the internet breaks new talent rather than the press, and for that reason the Fosters award has become trivialised. I’ll have a Guinness and the, er… scampi. I don’t feel well. Sorry.” 

At the opposite end of the comic mode of operating is Phil Kay – another hour of unscripted freewheeling over four chords wherein Kay bounces along the sine wave of human experience, capturing his wonder and jealousy at how his child has no concept of being late. 

Kay winds miles downwind and out of the way of all reason and logical thoroughfare and then snaps back into his channel with expert coolness. 

Two unique moments of brilliance threaten to overshadow the curtain that is the Fringe. 

The ambitiously conceptual and accurately named annual staple of Two Young Men Dressed As Gorillas Sit Rocking In Rocking Chairs For Fifty-Six Minutes And Then Leave (But One Of Them Leaves Ten Minutes Early). 

This is less a scripted performance than a cryptic Dadaist indulgence designed to catapult the community into a twisted frenzy which carries it through to completion. 

In a similarly leftfield position is Max and Ivan’s The Wrestling, a mash up of Simon Munnery and Mel Brimfield’s Intergender Wrestling and, well, more wrestling, but the difference is that all participants are in the middle of one of the most gruelling months of a performer’s career. 

Esquire writer and man grappler Max Olesker manages to break an ankle but thrashes on through the pain to ultimately win a Foster’s panel award with cohort Ivan Gonzales, a surprise from which they’ve clearly not fully recovered.

Nathan Penlington’s Uri Geller fixation is fully flexed in Uri And Me, a refined and exhaustively researched show which warmly addresses the world’s favourite professional spoon bender, a prefix to a far darker top secret project which is stuffed up the wizard’s sleeve.

This year’s fringe has been tinged with a warmth that glows through the deluge of flyers, bruised egos and skipped breakfasts, and now the sunken eyes staring out from under stage lights in the dying days of the world’s biggest and most remarkable arts festival can close for a few weeks and restore their sparkle.

Tom Bell’s Fringe Top Five
Pajama Men
Doris Day Can Fuck Off
Two Young Men Dressed As Gorillas Sit Rocking In Rocking Chairs For Fifty-Six Minutes And Then Leave (But One Of Them Leaves Ten Minutes Early)
Tom Bell Begins

Stewart Lee’s Complete Vegetable Stew

In what seems like an act of closure on his 30 year career as it stands, Stewart Lee has crushed selected material into a three-hour evening in what could easily be termed a binge.

As usual with Lee there are many levels to this show, which describes a considered arc from some of his most accessible material, through a transition period which is neither post-modern nor archaic, and finally into a full hour of the lowest form of art – musical comedy.

By closing the show with an hour of almost unplayed guitar he manages to both validate and undermine the tiresome indulgence of the rockstar comedian persona – a mould into which he certainly doesn’t fit – a fitting move for the “London intelligentsia in the cathedral of culture.”

However, there is a parallel arc running counter to the thread of the evening, and that’s one of self-referential deconstruction, a fractalline engine which forms the conceptual centre of much of Lee’s work.

Self-aware comics always flirt with a dangerous mistress – even the most switched-on and intelligent ones – so to forge an entire evening of measured, witty and thought-provoking social comedy which encompasses three decades of work with precisely on-point unifying themes is a testament to the rare skill that Lee posseses.

Many of today’s newer comics simply don’t appreciate the history and nuance of their art as practised by prior generations. An ability to mete out vulgarity and use the odd silly word next to piece of weak observation tend to be lauded higher than the more subtle notions of social awareness, inclusivity and artistic solidity.

The timing of Lee’s “austerity binge” season is in perfect synchrony with both his career curve and the cyclic return of the Tory government, as he delicately and sharply makes clear throughout, culminating in a poetic anecdote about the Prime Minister, the “vomiting and pissing Buller boy” David Cameron.

There aren’t many words appropriate to precis the character, nature and ability of the 41st-best stand-up in Britain – Stewart Lee is the Stewart Lee of comedy.

The Shit – The Servant’s Jazz Quarters, Dalston, London N1

“There are many people in this room… In this particular room, there are many, many people. This is one of those people,” observes Erik Hovland, poet, philosopher, performance artist and creative director of one of the most original bands to never release a  single piece of music, Cat Drop. In keeping with this unusual property Erik has decided to leave his fellow artists at home, instead choosing to point out the markedly obvious to a tiny cluster of people in a converted basement in Hackney. 

The Servant’s  Jazz Quarters used to be home to a feminist publishing commune but now plays host to a sporadic club night fast becoming known for its crisp selection of dadaist European imports.  Groaning through the system this evening, among others, is elucidator extraordinaire Phil Kay acknowledging International Women’s Day with a story about his wife and new child, a solemn meditation on the human centipede of life. 

Following Kay, the charming Gwyneth Herbert practically exhausts her repertoire at the rabid demand of the audience, a task she tackles with aplomb, her beautiful voice filling the room with minute tears resting in the corners of eyes. 

The increasingly young Leonard Cohen troubler Jack Joseph provides downbeat perfection to warm the evening and soften the faces of anyone who, for whatever reason, forgot to get stoned beforehand. Joseph is a startling talent, refreshingly sober and bright, without a trace of the smiling melancholy which permeates his music.

In an unsettling strategy, the skilful and scatalogically appropriate DJ for the evening, one Cackjar, has redefined the space by mixing between track after track of recordings of silent rooms, delicately chopping up barely audible snippets into an extended vacuum of sound.

Strangely absent from performing this evening is the impresario who brought this together, Frankie Poullain, a gentleman who cuts an unusual figure in his mock-leather trousers, cape and upside down beard. When pressed about the space on the bill where his name might typically be, his answer is as bewildering as his neckwear: “It’s the Shit… Makes sense, yeah?” I know exactly what he means.

Originally printed in the Morning Star.

Recommended: The Blow – Pile of Gold

This track has been with me for a few years. Untouchable in its clean, shuddering simplicity and wry lyrics, it’s a stinker.

The Blow is the nom de musique of Mikhaela Yvonne Maricic. She’s on K Recs, also home of Tender Forever, aka Melanie Valera. Toby Ridler and I played a few gigs with her in 2005 around the UK and I was certain that she would become huge within the year, but she’s kept to her guns and it’s all remained real.

I’ll never forget Tender complaining about an awful promoter with the inimitable line “That guy can suck the dick I don’t have.”

Here’s the Blow…