Tag Archives: theatre

Coronation Street, one episode per second

I didn’t think much of the last Jonathan Harvey play I saw, Canary. Set-pieces haphazardly stitched together, trowel-loads of heavy handedness and nothing we hadn’t seen before.

With Corrie! we get the same again. The difference here is that it’s exactly what the audience wants: a romp through fifty glorious years of Coronation Street storylines. A chance to see again the most famous scenes unencumbered by the dodgy TV reminiscences of random celebrities and Paul Ross. And all with a knowing script that doesn’t take itself too seriously – like the show itself.

Like the show the play is dominated by strong female characters, from Elsie Tanner to Becky Macdonald and all tram stops in between. It focuses on the ones most commonly in man-trouble: Deirdre Hunt-Langton-Barlow-Rachid-Barlow and Gail Potter-Tilsley-Tilsley-Platt-Hillman-McIntyre. We see the major plot points in their lives, their downs and their further-downs – those characters not greatly blessed with extended periods of happiness – with stories for other characters slotted in alongside.

Almost all the characters you’d expect to see are here, ably impersonated by an impressively tiny and versatile cast. For me, the highlight is Ken Barlow: the actor captures Essence of Roache perfectly, almost uncannily at times. And while we can all trill Hilda Ogden’s Sound of Music when sufficiently lubricated, and might be able to drop a couple of octaves for a few angsty Deirdre classics, I doubt we could do as good a job as the actor playing the actor playing Gail.

The internet leads me to believe that the six main performers in the play portray a total of 54 authentic Corrie characters. That’s some feat. Happily they do so with humour and warmth rather than snark, and those of the actual soap’s actual cast who saw the play during its initial run in Manchester reportedly enjoyed it.

There’s a seventh performer on stage: a narrator, played by a gen-yoo-ine former cast member. It’s a guest role, with different cobble-wanderers lined up for stints as the show tours. For us it was Gaynor Faye, who played Judy Mallet for four years in the nineties. No, I don’t remember her either. Future guests include Ken Morley (Reg Holdsworth) and Roy Barraclough (Alec Gilroy).

There are some odd omissions from the line-up of characters. No Alf; no Norris; no Mavis; no Betty; no Battersbys; no Dev. But I guess the play’s only two hours long; it’s tricky squeezing 7500 episodes into one evening’s entertainment, even if most of the 1960s storylines were about Ena Sharples’ hairnet.

They manage to pack a great deal into the running time. Think of a famous clip, funny or sad, and chances are it’s here or at least referred to. Don’t think they’d be able to pull that one off? Think again!

Some of the set pieces, though, don’t work that well. I understand why Jonathan Harvey would want to break up the ‘straight acting’ with a ballet about Tony Gordon (seriously!) but it’s not, in all honesty, a story I cared for. For me, a funnier alternative would have been an opera about Fred Elliott and Ashley. And I can’t believe I just wrote that.

It’s easy to criticise soaps like Coronation Street and Eastenders for their relentless implausibility, their dilation of time and space, their murder rates and their inability to hold a wedding without a simultaneous catastrophe. But, for now at least, they are a core part of British culture – one of few remaining shared experiences, whether you watch or not.

The characters are like members of our (very) extended family. We know their foibles. We roll our eyes at Gail’s doomed attempts at romance, at Ken and Deirdre’s rows. We tut at the latest round of wife-swapping and twitch our televisual curtains at every bout of handbags on the cobbles. We cheer when someone gives birth to a three-month-old baby and mourn when much-loved characters pass on to the next world (Heartbeat).

The play works because we know and love the characters already. We don’t have to spend the first act trying to remember who’s who before deciding whether to empathise with them or not. Even if, like me, you’re not currently a habitual viewer of the soap, it’s impossible to grow up in this country without being at least peripherally aware of the characters in Corrie growing up with you.

I guess this makes Corrie! the play a massively elaborate cultural in-joke. Flamin’ ’eck!

Avaragado’s rating: no eclairs

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Pilgrimages

Scott Pilgrim versus The World is unquestionably an Edgar Wright movie, in the style we know from Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Background treats! Easily missed visual and aural gags! Pop-culture references! But no Simon Pegg or Nick Frost. It’s an Edgar Wright movie without the usual suspects: but is it a Carry On Columbus, notable only for the cast not present?

Happily not, matron, oh I say, hwahwahwah, etc. In fact it’s the closest I think I’ve seen to a comic-book-slash-graphic-novel in live-action movie form. I have yet to read the books on which the film is based – mainly due to the incompetence of the Home Delivery Network, a rant for another time perhaps – but, like Watchmen before it, I have the distinct feeling that many of the scenes are lifted substantially unchanged from the source material; storyboards barely required. But perhaps I do Wright a wrong; I’ll see.

The film’s flaw is also what makes it great, for me: as well as being a film-o-comic it’s a film-o-game. Video games and gaming culture are at the core of the story. Those not steeped in the lore may well emerge bewildered – if they stay to the end of the film, which three people at my screening did not. However, gamers should love it: it’s the first mainstream, big-budget film I’ve seen to get the essence of gaming culture right, to feel like it’s been made by someone who has actually played a video game, rather than portraying a hackneyed, Hollywoodised variant thereof. It’s like the first western to include a horse.

I’m a fan of Michael Cera, who plays Pilgrim. Or rather, I’m a fan of the character Michael Cera played in Arrested Development, George Michael, which is no more than a smidge different from the character he played in Juno, and barely an insect’s toenail from his portrayal of Pilgrim. I presume he can play other characters, but in this case I’m glad he didn’t.

But it’s Edgar Wright’s film. Now: please can we have the third in the cornetto trilogy? kthxbai.

Avaragado’s rating: assorted power-enhancing fruit

Last Friday His Holiness Stephen Fry graced the Corn Exchange with his wise and illustrious visage for ninety minutes of chatter and readings from the new volume of his autobiography, The Fry Chronicles.

Fry is of course a national treasure; not quite at Thora Hird levels but then she did have the stairlift. In the talk he told how it nearly didn’t happen – two ‘hinges’ in his life, as he put it, that might have swivelled differently and led to a very different personal history. This is true of everyone, naturally – we are each the sum of our decisions, both micro and macro – and I can identify a couple of hinges in my own life, similarly seminal in moulding the modern me. One of them was undoubtedly the chance meeting I wrote about recently that set me along the computing path. I occasionally wonder how different my life might have been had that meeting never happened. In a parallel universe I might very well be an HGV driver with an intimate knowledge of overhead camshafts.

Fry’s retelling of his first meeting with Hugh Laurie at Cambridge, how they started writing together with virtually no preamble, no getting-to-know-you stage, was fascinating. Almost like love at first sight, he said. It made me want to read the autobiography, which was after all the point of the evening. And it made me want to write more, which most things seem to do at the moment.

Attendees were granted individual audiences with Stephen post-show, assuming they had crossed the palm of the man from Waterstones (Gary) with silver and bought a book to sign. A health-and-safety worryingly large number of people did so; it was impossible to distinguish queue from non-queue. The call of B Bar proved stronger and we high-tailed it out of a side door.

It strikes me that the blessed Stephen’s life is ripe for a BBC Four drama-documentary someday. It’ll happen, mark my words.

Avaragado’s rating: bon-bons

Oh, and the Pope popped in for a visit.

I’m not a fan.

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The coughing canary

I was too scared to come out in the 80s, too dumb to come out in the 90s, and already gaydead by the noughties, having hit thirty and therefore ceased to exist except in shadowy, wraith-like form – the film version would be called Logan’s Ring.

Jonathan Harvey’s new play Canary is no Logan’s Ring. It’s more Close Encounters of the Predictable Kind. Imagine a velvet bag full of the usual ‘gay drama’ tropes shaken and cast onto an Ikea coffee table and then transcribed directly into Final Draft and you’re 90% there.

Cliches are cliches because they’re true, of course, and the play is sufficiently true to life to spark a raw nerve once or twice – despite very little resemblance to my own history. It is, though, desperately predictable and hand-wringingly earnest.

There is a message, and the message is that gays have fought, and lost, and won, and lost, and won, and now are in danger of losing again. The story moves back and forth in time following a group of people as they struggle with events: the criminality of the 60s, the militant liberalism of the 70s, the confusion and fear of the 80s, and the complacency of the present day.

You will hardly be surprised to learn that AIDS features prominently. I confess I rolled my eyes when a character started coughing for no apparent reason; I half-expected a Pythonesque neon arrow labelled PLOT POINT to descend from the stage loft above him. This is a play with no time for subtlety.

We skip between eras so rapidly there is no chance to develop any character: the obvious things happen, and then we move on. Despite this some of these vignettes work well – the best feature ‘guest appearances’ from Mary Whitehouse and Margaret Thatcher – and I wonder whether the play started as a collection of sketches later stitched poorly together with Tesco Value plot threads.

The cast do uniformly well with what they’re given, all but one doubling or trebling up in different roles between which they switch with dizzying rapidity. Paula Wilcox, once a Liver Bird, plays scouse and Thatch. Ryan Sampson – a pocket thesp seen in Doctor Who a few years ago as an annoying American youth in the thrall of similarly pocket Sontarans – does well to slowly ramp up the camp in one role while also playing a striking 80s miner. Philip Voss (caution: 90s web design) drags up nicely as Mary Whitehouse; if only we could harness energy from her spinning grave.

The set is minimalist but very effective and necessarily versatile given the frequent scene changes and occasional periods in which two eras clash on stage.

I wanted to like the play, I really did. I enjoyed Harvey’s Beautiful Thing for what it was – a fairytale – despite the schmaltz. With Gimme Gimme Gimme and more recently Beautiful People he has modernised camp comedy on TV, even showing camp schoolboys without as far as I can tell incurring the wrath of the redtops. My disappointment with the play stems from the clunky stereotyping and plain lack of originality.

We are surely past the point where a gay play or film or TV show or soap plot is about gay rather than about people. Were this an educational piece for schools explaining the modern history of homosexuality in the UK it would be effective and might counter a deal of uninformed prejudice. As a night out for grown-ups who value character and plot and perhaps something new, unexpected and challenging, it’s lazy and, for me, it fails.

But hey, it has hot young actors in pants.

Avaragado’s rating: a small punnet of cherry tomatoes

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On plinths and mentalists

On Saturday afternoon Chris and I went to London. First stop: Trafalgar Square. The famous tourist trap and pigeon restaurant is currently playing host to a bonkers piece of art called One and Other. As art goes it’s not entirely my manbag, since I like my art to be in some sense permanent and very definitely lacking a pulse. The idea is that, every hour, 24 hours a day, for 100 days, someone gets to stand on top of the reserved-for-future-wars empty plinth and do whatever takes their (legal) fancy. It’s broadcast constantly on one of Sky’s zero-viewer Arts channels; I like to think it has a Come Dine With Me sarcy voiceover.

Quite what makes this art I’m not sure. By the same token Big Brother is art.

The plinth occupier upon our visit was a woman who occasionally threw paper aeroplanes but did little else. She did have a wendy house adorned with a charity logo, though; similarly branded chuggers were shaking their buckets illegally at bemused Spaniards in a small radius. This exciting yet deeply dull sight I immediately tweeted to an eager world.

We lasted about ten minutes before looking for a pub. You will hear a different story about this from Chris. Mine is true.

“Let’s find a pub off the beaten track!” he said.

“We’re in the middle of London. There’s no such thing,” I replied.

“OK, then let’s get lost. You have an iPhone, we can always find out where we are.”

We headed roughly in the direction of Leicester Square. Chris navigated. Left here, right here. A tell-tale pagoda indicated Chinatown. Cross this road.

At this point I started giggling. “You have no idea where we are, do you?” I said.

“Since you’re laughing, I imagine you do.”

“Yeah.” I pointed at the sign saying Old Compton Street.

We found a bar and sat by the window, watching the gays promenade. I tested Chris on his straightdar: you can always tell the heterosexual couples in a gay environment since they hold hands, paw each other or are otherwise blatantly affectionate. Bless their insecure little ways.

After a drink or two we went to Mildred’s and met up with my friend Damon for a splendid meal. Then the main event: Derren Brown’s new show Enigma at the Adelphi Theatre on the Strand.

I will say very little about the show to avoid spoiling it (Derren also asked nicely). But I can confirm that it’s pretty damn good – jaw-dropping in places. The ending is very clever indeed and you leave the theatre with mind suitably blown. Chris was desperate to be one of the few Chosen Ones selected by frisbee to go on stage, but failed by one row (the person directly in front of us got to go). Oh, we did work out one trick; but others, no luck.

At one point in the show Derren Walked Amongst Us and was briefly beside Chris, who whispered “we love you” at him (yes, he had been drinking). Derren didn’t hear, thankfully.

Amazing show. See it if you can.

Avaragado’s rating: is written on the back of a playing card inside a sealed envelope

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You could have someone’s eye out with that

Occasionally we like to inject a little high culture into our lives: move out of our comfort zones and do grown-up things. Like the theatre, for instance: a hard-hitting play, dark and modern, tackling a controversial subject.

And with nudity.

It was Louise’s idea to see Equus when the touring version hit the Cambridge Arts Theatre. She, Chris, Chef and I went along to Saturday night’s performance, Chris with customary Oasis bottle full of red wine. Chef chose to stay overnight at the University Arms, celebrating his new job and huge pay rise by splurging on a posh room.

We ate before the show at the Fountain, which does a decent range of pies’n’mash these days. Naturally Chris was already giggly on cider before he’d even touched his fake Oasis (mirage?).

The rain was starting to fall as we migrated from pub to theatre and took our seats. An older audience than I was expecting; no Harry Potter, I suppose. But we did have a great cast, led by Simon Callow as the psychiatrist Martin Dysart. The role of Alan Strang, Daniel Radcliffe’s in the West End, was taken by Alfie Allen – son of Keith, brother of Lily. I didn’t recognise any of the other actors.

Equus is about Alan Strang’s, uh, passion for horses and the circumstances that led him to blind six of them. The psychiatrist gradually draws out the story, which we see in flashback (no hand-waving diddly-doo-diddly-doos from the cast, it’s all in the dialogue). There are no Rentaghost panto horses, just men (and a woman) in brown skin-tight clothing with silver horse-heads and huge silver horseshod feet adding several inches to their height. It works astonishingly well.

The play is famous, neigh (do you see?) infamous for its nudity. It contains both flavours: Alan Strang plus Jill, a girl from the stables where he worked. In truth it does seem a little gratuitous, an early 70s anti-establishment right-on get-em-off hippy thing, but it was nonetheless not unwelcome. It certainly stopped the seemingly interminable coughing and spluttering from audience members who should have been at home with the Lemsip rather than drowning out the dialogue with their noisy phlegm.

Alfie Allen does well as Alan Strang. I was going to say that I’d like to see more of him, but there’s little else left to see, frankly. Simon Callow naturally steals the show, playing Simon Callow as usual (funny how the best thesps are like that). The actors playing Alan’s parents Frank and Dora were also excellent.

Enjoyed it tremendously.

Avaragado’s rating: four Milky bars

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The other one

A few weeks ago, you may recall, Chris, Chef and I saw “TV funnyman” Richard Herring perform his stand-up routine. I neglected to mention then that I am a personal friend of Richard. I say personal friend, he’s an acquaintance really. Well, sort of acquaintance. OK, we exchanged a few words after the show (me, on spotting him scampering to the bar about a minute after leaving the stage: “That was quick!”; him: “Got to get to the bar”). Anyway, his comedy partner and officially 41st best stand-up Stewart Lee performed for one night only at The Junction on Sunday. Chris and I, minus Chef this time, went along to see him.

Pre-show we downed a swift pint at the Cambridge Blue Kingston Arms and made a speedy visit to the Golden Curry. From there it was a ten-minute adventure along mysterious back streets to C’hinton Road and the chav-haunted concrete box piazza known as the Cambridge Leisure Park. The event took place in Junction 2, AKA The Shed – a venue supposedly designed for small-scale drama and dance, AKA pretentious gurning and flapping about.

Plastic beers in hand we took our seats a few rows from the front. The support act was great but I am forbidden from describing it here by edict from Stewart Lee, and like all good citizens I always do as the 41st best stand-up comedian instructs.

As a few weeks ago, it was odd to hear one half of the double act without the other, but there was always a presence: the occasional line with a whiff of Herring. I’ve always liked the distinctive Stewart Lee style: articulate, verbose, exaggerated. Or something.

Mostly very funny, though with a weak ending I thought. (The ending would have been stronger but for the sudden distraction of what seemed to be an outrageous violation of the law: a small cloud of cigarette smoke billowing up from an audience member between us and the stage.)

Avaragado’s rating: five sardines

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Cider with Herring

Chris and I took the 5.15pm train to King’s Cross on Friday – the Cider Express judging by Chris’s intake – to meet up with Chef for Richard Herring’s show at the Arts Theatre on Great Newport Street. I was also going to squeeze in a drink with someone I’ve been chatting to on and off online.

Chris’s two cans of cider on the train were followed up with two pints in the Duke of York on the platform at King’s Cross – his mum was there waiting for a train back to Hull. Chef joined us here.

Then to the evening’s second duke, the Duke of Wellington in Soho, where I was meeting my friend. Chris and Chef thankfully made themselves scarce for the duration.

At nine we headed to the Arts Theatre and took our seats in row A – the second row, the first row naturally being row BB. Nobody sat in row BB, though, so row A was effectively the first row. This mattered deeply as we expected Richard Herring’s chubby little fingers to point to us during the show, and so it proved (some nonsense about Chef sitting with me and Chris to make himself look good). At least none of us was dragged on stage.

He talked more or less non-stop for over an hour, longer than my Fisher Price bladder could last at any rate. Almost entirely new material, with a recycled Fist of Fun joke clearly identified as such. Good stuff.

Avaragado’s rating: one lollipop

After the show, since Chris and I were staying Chez Chef overnight, we wandered around looking for somewhere to eat. We settled on the Alastair Little Restaurant on Frith Street. I think Chef’s paydar must have taken us there, since it wasn’t cheap. I had what I believe was the world’s most expensive lasagne. Very tasty though.

Avaragado’s rating: two wild, absolutely livid mushrooms

We scandalously turned down dessert to avoid missing the last tube back to Chef’s in Kentish Town, where further wine was taken.

Chris and I returned to Cambridge relatively early on Saturday morning, via tube, train and, sigh, replacement bus service from Royston.

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