Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Jo Brand

SHE has been a psychiatric nurse, is a BAFTA-winning stand up comedienne, actress, writer and broadcaster and been manhandled by self-styled makeover experts Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine in the name of fashion, but now Jo Brand is facing the biggest challenge of her life - panto.
The show in question is Aladdin which opens at the New Wimbledon Theatre on Friday, December 6 and in which she stars as the Genie of the Ring.
"I fancied a bit of a change to be honest," she laughs when I ask her what prompted her to take on the part.
"I realised I'd never done pantomime before so when it was offered, I thought why not?!"
I meet Jo in the basement of a rather dimly lit bar in Wimbledon on a very drizzly, cold day before rehearsals start.
And despite her sometimes sarcastic and droll demeanour on TV, she is incredibly relaxed and full of bonhomie as we chat about her forthcoming stint on stage and her lengthy and impressive career.
"Obviously I would have loved to be Cinderella because I'm a role model for glamorous women but they asked me to be the Genie of the Ring, God help me, so it will be quite amusing I'm sure," she chuckles.
"I’m no actress – I’d never describe myself as that but I wanted to have a go... tick it off the list so to speak.
"Also it's near where I live so I can get back home really easily which is a major consideration these days!" she laughs.
Joining her on stage will be award-winning actor Matthew Kelly as Widow Twankey and street dancers Flawless as the Peking Police Force.
"Fortunately I'm not going to be doing any prancing about myself - I shall probably be exhausted enough just watching them," Jo adds grinning widely.
As well as starring in the show, Jo will also have a hand in writing it.
"It will be another first for me in that I've never written panto before but I'm looking forward to it. The script hasn't been finalised yet though I'm sure there will be plenty of ad libs and gags.
"The worst bit will be putting on all the make up and wearing all the fancy glittery clothes - which is clearly not what I'm used to," she says gesturing to the outfit she is wearing - casual trousers, a baggy top and boots.
"Mind, you at least it can't be any worse than being dressed by Trinny and Susannah," she laughs.
"That was a very strange experience. I think whoever dreamed up the show thought I needed a makeover. It made good TV I suppose but they were hilarious and it was a bit of a laugh. I just looked totally different.
"I don’t wear black all the time these days so I suppose that's a partial victory for them. But I still wear the boots,” she adds flashing them in my direction.
Her appearance caused some to question whether her aggressive, men-hating comic routines and all-black wearing days were behind her.
"People always seem to think you mellow as you get older but I don’t think so," she says.
“What was hilarious was that when I was doing the stand up back in the early days, people thought I hated men which was ridiculous as I didn’t at all. They also thought I was a lesbian, again not at all."
In fact she is married with two daughters and lives not far from where she was born in Wandsworth, an area she loves.
"I love South London. It's very gritty and there are some parts of it which have seen better days but it has a good feel about it.
"Years ago it always had a reputation for being quite crime ridden and I remember South London Press was always full of crime and murder stories and the like.
"Now I think it's a bit calmer and there is more of a sense of community with people looking out for each other which is great.
"It did give me material for stand up.
"When I started out there were very few women on the circuit - it was just people like me and Jenny Eclair - and it was tough. There still aren’t a huge amount – but there are some very talented women out there so it's getting better.
"There was always a lot of heckling and you had to be tough so I just used to ignore it, give a put down or heckle back. You have to give as good as you get."
But she says it was a walk in the park compared to her previous job as a psychiatric nurse which she did for 10 years including stints at the Maudsley in Denmark Hill and South London Bethlem.
"Working as a psychiatric nurse it does make you think – it’s a really tough profession to be in and you are surrounded by some incredibly vulnerable human beings.
"The Maudsley is incredible in the work it does and I'm very proud of having been part of that. It hardens you completely though so after about 10 years I realised I'd had enough and needed to do something a little more light hearted."
However, the experience did leave her with a deep love of and for the NHS - which she showed when she penned and starred in the BBC Four award-winning comedy series Getting On which was set in a geriatric ward.
And she is now furious at the way she sees it being dismantled by the current Government.
So has she ever thought about going into politics herself?
“Oh goodness no,” she laughs. “I’d never be any good at that - I'm much too gobby!”

Aladdin is on at the New Wimbledon Theatre from Friday, December 6 until Sunday, January 12, 2014.

Tickets from £10. Call the box office on 0844 871 7646.

Our Ajax

Three stars

A POWERFUL retelling of Sophocles's Ajax is now on at the Southwark Playhouse. Written by Timberlake Wertenbaker it is an epic drama of heroism, love and homeland set among a British regiment on the front line.
A bare set of sand underfoot and a curtain at the back to signify a tent is all that is needed in this incredibly moving production.
Ajax, played by a towering Joe Dixon, is going slowly mad thanks to the horrors of war. Once a revered colonel, he is now suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and mad rages.
He staggers on to the sand strewn stage covered in blood and sweat dragging a bloodied and mutilated corpse of a goat which he thinks is Odysseus thanks to the goddess Athena having messed with his brain.
Prone to violent outbursts peppered with moments of sorrow and compassion, Ajax's family and regiment are confused at the change in this once powerful, charismatic and enigmatic leader, father and husband and don't know how to handle him but try to do so with love and understanding.
At its heart the play explores and shows us what war can do to human beings - not just physically but perhaps more importantly, mentally.
There are some great performances including from Frances Ashman as Ajax's wife Tecmessa but it is the fabulous and moving portrayal by Dixon as Ajax which really lights up the stage.

Our Ajax is on at the Southwark Playhouse in Newington Causeway until November 30.

Tickets cost £16. Call the box office on 020 7407 0234.

Interview with Arthur Smith

SOUTH London comic Arthur Smith is bringing an air of mystery and amusement to Balham next month with his unique form of mobile comedy.
The self-elected Night Mayor of Balham will be hosting a secret night walk around his beloved South London neighbourhood.
The event, on Saturday, December 14, will include singing, chat and audience participation. But the rest - well all will be revealed on the night.
What started out as a spontaneous idea in Edinburgh many years ago to fill in time between gigs has become something of a regular occurrence. And they were soon the stuff of legend as Arthur explains.
"When I was doing the Edinburgh Festival in the 1980s I was doing a comedy show at night and was trying to find a way of keeping sober during the day and hit on the idea of a walking tour.
"It was a bit of a parody of a tour and history of the place that gets mangled up - it was all bullshit really as I made up most of it but they were a lot of fun."
The tours were so successful he began to do them during the evenings as well.
"Sometimes they didn't start until about 2am, after a gig, when everyone was pissed and I used to get about 200 people which obviously had the potential for a riot.
"It meant they frequently ended in chaos, had elements of nudity and I got arrested at least once," he chuckles.
"For example I used to pay people to climb up lamp posts and sing Scotland The Brave and I ended up in A&E one time.
"The night I got arrested for breach of the peace it involved (comedian) Malcolm Hardee who stripped off and did an impression of General De Gaulle.
"I was fined £100 but have never been asked for the money so technically I am still a wanted man," he laughs.
"There was one occasion when we had about 50 coppers descend on us and we all had to scatter in the wind - it was pandemonium!"
These days although the walks may be less raucous they are nonetheless a chance to see Arthur at his comedic best.
"I was born in Bermondsey and have lived in South London all my life. I couldn't live in north London. South London is much more real.
"I'm slowly moving around the South Circular and now live in Balham and I like the idea that it has its own catchphrase as Balham - Gateway to the South.
"I've lived here since the 1980s so know it really well so it's a chance to introduce others to the delights of the area.
"It basically involves me taking a group of people and leading them on a merry dance around Balham.
"I take them to my favourite places and hidden gems - there is no theatrical set that compares with the outside.
"Sometimes you have to be a bit careful because if you crowd around a building the security guards get a bit nervous but they can have a sense of humour.
"I will quite likely improvise if I come across people I like the look of - I tend to surround them and talk about them, not in an offensive way of course, but just chat really.
"I'm older now and less foolish so this one will be much more genteel," he chuckles. "But it will still be a bit of a laugh and a bit more out there than a children's tea party!"
But he admits he doesn't as yet have a definitive plan for the evening.
"I don't know yet where we will be going exactly," he muses. "I know roughly where we are going to go - but there is always an element of surprise with a set piece at the end.
"I will need to have a couple of things set up along the way so I'd better get cracking on it!"

Visit http://geckosuperstar.co.uk/stand-up-and-walk-arthur-smith/ to buy tickets and for starting point.

We Will Be Free - Bussey Building

FRESH from their success with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at the Bussey Building in Peckham, Townsend Productions is back with a new show We Will Be Free.
Set in 1834, it follows the extraordinary true story of George and Betsy Loveless.
George was a Methodist preacher and the leader of the six Dorsetshire farm labourers who were tried, convicted and condemned to harsh transportation by the Government for having the temerity to swear a secret oath and form a union to fight against a succession of wage cuts inflicted by the local landowner.
The piece has been written by Neil Gore, who starred in the Ragged Trousers and who will take the part of George.
He said: "It's a vitally important piece of theatre in the same vein as Ragged Trousers - in fact it was that production which inspired me to write this one.
"It's a focus on another aspect of labour history and it's a story that needs telling and re-telling.
"George was a methodist lay minister and self educated - he taught himself to read and write which was amazing in those days.
"I knew about the story before I wrote the play but not about all the detail so it's been fascinating to research it. I hope we can do these incredible people justice with the story because it must have been an overwhelming time for them.
"But it chimes with what is happening in terms of people having to work longer hours for less money.
"It's an extraordinary tale of determination and courage and that drives the story.
"And I'm so pleased we will be bringing it to the Bussey Building again as part of the tour because it's the most amazing space, incredibly creative and really fits in with the piece.
Neil will be joined by Elizabeth Eves to tell the story but music is an integral part of the production and will feature songs and hymns from the highly acclaimed folk singer and squeezebox player, John Kirkpatrick as well as puppetry and a backdrop of cartoon animations.

We Will Be Free takes place at the Bussey Building on November 29 and 30 at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £10 (£8 concessions and £5 unwaged). Call the Box Office on 020 7732 5275 or online at www.clfartcafe.org

Seussical, Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street

A SYDENHAM based director is bringing the stories of one of literature's favourite authors to life this Christmas.
Kirk Jameson is working with Greenwich and Deptford based theatre company Sell A Door on a production of Seussical, a musical which fuses the famous Dr Seuss stories of Horton Hears A Who and Horton Hatches The Egg.
The cast of 12, which is currently in rehearsal at Make Believe Arts in Deptford, will be taking the show to the Arts Theatre in the West End.
It follows on from last year's successful run at the Great Newport Street theatre but this year features a new cast and Kirk as director.
"It's a lovely show and was very successful so we are very pleased to bringing it back," says Kirk.
"It's got a great score and I'm a huge fan of Dr Seuss so it was a no brainer for me to want to direct it.
"It's really exciting especially as I am coming into it new. I didn't see it last year as I was doing other things so I'm putting my own stamp on it and coming at it with completely fresh eyes and fresh ideas."
For those who don't know, it features Dr Seuss's Cat in the Hat as the narrator who takes the audience on a journey into the world of Horton the Elephant.
Horton discovers a small world floating by on a speck of dust but this small world, inhabited by the Whos, is floating out of control through the universe.
Caught between a dust speck and his incubating egg, Horton must find a way to look after both.
"It's got lots of levels so will appeal to both adults and children," says Kirk.
"Children in particular have incredible imaginations and are completely able to be challenged on a creative and intellectual level by all the themes in the story."
And the 29-year-old says he is relishing bringing a production to the West End.
"I started working at the Union Theatre in Southwark three years ago and have learned such a lot from Sasha Regan who runs the theatre there.
"She's opened my eyes to the ability of being able to tell stories on stage without big budgets.
"Theatre isn't about expensive sets and how much money can you throw at everything. It's about telling a really good story.
"Working in the fringe sector you are forced to use your imagination and that's been an incredibly good grounding for me.
"But now I'm really excited to be able to spread my wings to the West End - it's an incredible moment for me and I'm so proud of the team because it's going to be a fantastic show."

Seussical is on at the Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street between November 30 and January 5, 2014. Tickets from £22.50. Call the box office on 020 7836 8463.

Merchant of Venice


Jack Studio Theatre, Brockley Road.

Alexander Shenton as Bassanio and Rosemary Lippard as Portia

Stephen McNeice as Shylock.

A dimly lit stage made up entirely of an oversize and sturdy boardroom table which dominates the room is the setting for Lazarus Theatre company’s production of Merchant of Venice.
The show, now on at the Jack Studio Theatre above the Brockley Jack pub, is a trimmed down affair. At a mere 100 minutes a good chunk of Shakespeare’s text has been given the chop.
But the essence of the play is very much still there with all the action taking place in, around or on top of the enormous table.
When Bassanio decides to woo Portia he borrows money from his wealthy friend Antonio. Antonio believing his ships will bring him home a fortune readily agrees to lend Bassanio the money.
But before his fortune is realised and to pay Bassanio, Antonio takes out a loan with Shylock, a Jewish moneylender and a man who Antonio has insulted in the past because of his religion.
So sure is Antonio that his ships will come in that he readily agrees to Shylock’s bond which is a pound of flesh if Antonio fails to repay the loan.
However, although Bassanio successfully woos Portia, Antonio’s fleet is lost at sea, and with it his fortune, and Shylock demands his bond be paid in full. It is up to Portia, disguised as a lawyer to save the day.
The play itself is now regarded as a difficult one to put on given its apparent anti semitism. But this production is successful thanks to director Ricky Dukes, his top notch cast and their excellent interpretation of the text.
There are some elements that are curious – for example the sometimes slo-mo movements. But generally it is a lively and spirited show which brings Shakespeare's humour to the fore but which does not shy away from some of the darker themes.
And there are some stand out performances most notably Alexander Shenton as Bassanio, Rosemary Lippard as Portia and Stephen McNeice as Shylock.

The Merchant of Venice is on at The Jack Studio Theatre, Brockley Road until December 7.
Tickets £13. Call the box office on 0844 8700 887

Friday, 15 November 2013

Nut at the National



NUT, now on at the award-winning Shed stage, is a tough one to crack. Making her debut for the National Theatre, the play has been written and directed by debbie tucker green - who seems to dislike capital letters. 
It is about depression and self harm and centres on Elayne, played beautifully by Nadine Marshall.
As the 70-minute play progresses, we see how she craves isolation - evident in her refusal to replace batteries for the doorbell - the results of her self-harming and the relationships she has with her few friends and family.
To begin with Elayne is sitting amongst a pile of lists, and making one about her funeral arrangements - she's not dying but she is clearly depressed. 
This constant portrayal of doom is irritating her friend Aimee, played by Sophie Stanton, who winds her up about how she would organise Elayne's funeral and how many people would come to her own.
As a result the two spend much of the first scene bickering about the arrangements to these non events whilst trying to outdo each other on whose funeral is going to be the most well attended.
The sub plot concerns Elayne's sister - known only as Ex-Wife and her former husband - known only as Ex Husband who enjoy a heated argument about who has the closer relationship with their 11-year-old daughter.
Indeed Sharlene Whyte and Gershwyn Eustache Jr's powerful, humorous and poignant performance really lights up the stage in an otherwise gloomy atmosphere.
Although there is some ambiguity about this play - for example, it is not clear where it is set or whether the boy who comes on is Elayne's son, or if he is dead or alive - what is clear is the huge sadness that hangs over the proceedings. 
It may depress you but it is a production which is both poetic and well acted.

nut runs until Thursday, December 5
Tickets cost from £12. Call the box office on 020 7452 3244.
Twelfth Night at the Rose Theatre, Bankside


Tim Welham as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Venetia Maitland as Maria and Richard Fish as Sir Toby Belch

Esther-Grace Button as Viola
TWELFTH Night is one of Shakespeare's best loved plays and a new adaptation by theatre group Permanently Bard has brought it beautifully to life at the Rose Theatre in Park Street.
Pared down to a mere one hour 45 minutes, it races along with much jolity, slapstick and all the Shakespeare ingredients of mistaken identities.
When Sebastian and his twin sister Viola are shipwrecked both are rescued independently and believe the other to be dead.
Viola puts on a man's garb, calls herself Cesario and goes to work for Count Orsino, who is in love with the lady Olivia. She will have none of him as she is mourning for her brother.
However, things change when Olivia meets Cesario and falls in love with him. Matters are complicated further when Sebastian turns up with his friend Antonio and is mistaken for Cesario and vice versa.
Meanwhile, a sub plot takes place involving Olivia's uncle, the aptly named Sir Toby Belch and his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Olivia's maid Maria wreaking emotional and psychological havoc on Olivia's steward Malvolio.
Although the cutting of a good chunk of the text has caused some of the intricacies of the plots and the finer details to be lost, it is the strength of the acting that carries this through and makes it a great production.
Indeed, all the actors have a real energy and seem very much at home on the Rose's tiny stage but make good use of the wider archaelogical site in which it lies - the scene in which Malvolio is in jail is particularly striking as he is seen languishing in a dank and damp recess at the back of the site.
But it is Richard Fish as Sir Toby Belch who steals the show. He perfectly conveys the nastiness of the character in his bullying of Malvolio but shows also his softer side when trying to woo Maria.
And he has pretending to be a drunken slob down to a T.
This is a fabulous production - spirited and fun. Just as it should be.

Twelfth Night is on at the Rose Theatre, Park Street until Saturday, November 30. Tickets cost £12. Call the box office on 020 7261 9565. 

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Simple Minds

WHEN Jim Kerr was eight years old he met Charlie Burchill at school in Glasgow. It was to be a pivotal moment in his life. The two became inseparable and went on to form one of the most successful pop bands in history - Simple Minds.
However although they started out in 1977 it wasn't until the 1980s that they gained commercial success with a string of hits that included Don't You (Forget About Me).
With more than 30 years in the business under their belts they've had an astonishing career - releasing more than 30 singles, countless albums – six of which have gone to number 1 in the UK - sold millions of albums across the world and won numerous awards.
And despite their fare share of staff comings and goings over the intervening years, and the inevitable minor disagreements that comes with any relationship, the pair have weathered the storms sticking together to gain a reputation as not only one of the most hardworking bands in the business but as a group of musicians who have been responsible for some of the most innovative and enduring anthems in rock music.
To celebrate, this year has seen the band launch a greatest hits album, Celebrate – The Greatest Hits +, and embark on a world tour which includes a trip to Greenwich's O2 arena at the end of this month.
"It's been a great year for us," Jim tells me. "In particular we're really excited about the album as it includes two new tracks, which we are very proud of.
“The tour is going great too so life is pretty good.”
The 54-year-old was speaking ahead of the Greenwich date on November 30 which he says will be "extremely special" - not least because 80s band Ultravox will be making a guest appearance.
"I love touring and doing live shows and we will be visiting four UK stadiums including the O2 as part of this latest one which we are really looking forward to.
"The O2 is a fantastic venue and we love playing there - and for this gig not only will we be playing as many of the hits as we can, the two new songs and a few surprises, but we've also got Ultravox with us so it will be amazing.”
For most musicians, life on the road can be exhausting and lonely but not so for Jim or the band – indeed he says it’s just the opposite, proof of which can be seen by looking at their extensive tour history.
"A lot of people tour but don’t really like it,” he says. “They miss home. However, for us, although we have a life outside, this is what we wanted to do right back from when we were kids and we are still passionate about it and love it.
“We embrace it. In fact I would even go so far as to say we were born to do this – so when we are on tour we want as many people to hear us as possible which is why we play clubs, theatres, festivals and stadiums.
“They are all totally different and I enjoy them all. It’s uplifting. But whether it’s performing to 100 people or 10,000, we want to give our best and all these years later that’s still the case.
"I still get a real kick out of it," he adds cheerfully. "In fact I'm a bit of a nomad, in that I have spent most of my life travelling all around the world but it suits me – it’s who I am.”
And although he says Scotland and in particular Glasgow, where he was born and brought up still has a special place in his heart, these days it’s all about the open road.
"I'm at my happiest discovering new places and not being tied down to one particular part of the world,” he says.
"And I’m sure this restlessness and nomadic spirit has influenced the music over the years – it’s certainly reflected in some of the earlier albums like Empires And Dance.”
As well as the tour, writing new material and releasing the greatest hits album, Jim has also set up a Simple Minds YouTube channel.
"Social media is great and I've really embraced it," he chuckles. "Because we are on the road so much it's a great new way to reach out to our fans. It’s fantastic as we can upload footage of our gigs and show people what we are up to.
“It’s all about forging a new relationship with the fans all over the world and it’s great to be able to have that kind of platform.
“Facebook is also a big part of our lives and I’ve done a blog diary for 10 years now which is on our website.
“The writing is a bit nonsensical – it’s about how it’s going or not going in the studio and snap shots of what we are doing on the road.
“But it’s a great thing to do and I really enjoy it.”
Despite all this activity, the reputation for being one of the hardest working bands doesn't sit easily with him.
"I don't know if we can live up to that cliché,” he laughs. “We do a lot and are passionate about performing live, but while remaining active is crucial, our desire to keep improving is every bit as important and make sure our audience has the best time at our gigs.
"I love the fact we are still here though, still have people who listen to our music and want to come and see us. It's very satisfying," he adds warmly.
But it’s his relationship with Charlie which he says has been the best and most important part of being in the band.
"I have been very lucky. We’ve played and collaborated with some amazing people over the years – Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, U2 and Peter Gabriel are just a few and all of them are our idols.
“We could never have forseen how things would turn out when we started. I have to pinch myself every day to remind myself how lucky we are!
“But my biggest reward is Charlie – he’s my best pal. We are still great friends, have a laugh together and mostly we see things the same way – it’s just fantastic.”

Simple Minds will be playing at the O2 in Greenwich on Saturday, November 30. Call the box office on 0844 856 0202.