2014: My Top 50 gigs

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I didn’t see 50 gigs this year. I saw one. It was one of the all-time greats, though, so that counts for a lot. It has been some years since going to music gigs was a regular outing for me. Let’s be honest: a large percentage of the music gigs I have been to since 2007 have been Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine at Brixton Academy. But this one, on November 22, was the Final Comedown, that is, their actual farewell, on home turf, to a home crowd. I was proud to have been among the 5,000 who communed there, some of them (not me) in original Carter shirts, many more (not me) in reproductions, more still in brand new ones for the occasion. (For the record, I wore my only band t-shirt, the Space Cudette one that Cud gave me two years ago when I played the drums with them, when they supported Carter at Brixton.)

I have written before about the almost metaphysical experience of seeing two men fill a 5,000-capacity amphitheatre using only their still fairly skinny bodies, a couple of guitars and some backing tapes, but whatever works. Carter USM have the hits, and a fanbase to sing them back at them at the tops of their ageing lungs. They used to have Jon Beast, whose passing was one of the sadder bits of news in 2014, but whose memory lives on in the chant of “You fat bastard!” We’re all fat bastards now. In tribute. The Final Comedown was less of a gig, more of a loud vigil. It allowed me to queue up for what might have been my last time down the side of the Academy, collect my pass from the little window, and stumble up the stairs in the dark to the “VIP bar”, where bottles of Carslberg or Tuborg sell for £3.80, but where you might, as I did, bump happily into Michael Legge, Danielle Ward and Simon Evans, not to mention Adrian, Carter’s old manager in the days when I was a cub reporter for the NME. I saw the gig itself from the right hand side of the front (where the exit from the backstage bit comes out). I am definitely getting too old for this shit, though, as even amid the unfettered joy and untrammelled shouting and air-pointing, I found myself slightly irritated by people blocking my view and filming everything on phones. But the magic was not destroyed.

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So, that was my gig of the year. I await the official DVD with anticipation. You can pre-order it here, and the company that lovingly make it, Nyquest, kindly supplied all the photos, via Carter’s manager Marc.

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As for other live gigs, well, I went all the way to the Edinburgh Festival for three days but I was working, so I only saw one comedy gig. It is, by definition, the best comedy gig I saw in 2014: Josie Long’s groundbreaking Josie Long show Cara Josephine, which I highly recommend, especially if you think you’ve got her sussed. Depths of honesty and autobiography are revealed in this show which makes it one of her very best, I think. I am glad to say that I saw my only comedy gig of the year at The Stand in Edinburgh, one of the greatest venues in the world.

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I saw two plays in 2014. Do they count at gigs? They are live entertainment. One was Daytona at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in London’s busy West End, courtesy of my friend Harry Shearer, who’s in it. As a very infrequent theatregoer – mainly due to price – I must say I love every minute of any play. Daytona, written by Oliver Cotton, who also stars in it, is set in Brooklyn in 1986 and, through two estranged brothers (wayward visitor Cotton and Shearer, who’s happily married to ballroom-dancing Maureen Lipman), it examines Jewishness down the ages, from the Holocaust to that which exercises modern Jewry. Having met Harry through 6 Music and relaxed into his company ever since, it was a joy to see him act, which is what he does, in such exalted company, and in such an unfamiliar milieu.

Daytona

As I always say, I see too little theatre to judge with precision, but I know I enjoyed watching these three superb actors lead me through a story whose outcome was unknown to me.

Ballyturk

Later in the year, we paid good money to see Ballyturk at the National Theatre, inspired to do so, I must confess, by the pleasurable experience of meeting and interviewing Cillian Murphy for Radio Times in Dublin, by which time he had already premiered his longtime confidant Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk in Galway. By the time it arrived in London, we’d purchased tickets, in a moment of fiscal madness. Acting alongside the physically committed Mikel Murfi and – in an extended cameo – the great Stephen Rea, Murphy was a revelation to those of us who’d only seen him onscreen, in films or Peaky Blinders. This is a hard play to pin down, but it seemed to be part hallucination, part something else, set to the great tunes of 80s pop (Living On The Ceiling, The Look Of Love etc.), and set inside the mentally suspect head of one of the two characters, who may have been part of the same head. Murphy’s voice was ragged by the time we saw him (and for which Mike Leigh and Karl Johnson the actor were in separate attendance), but this screechy imperfection added to the dislocated verve of the piece.

That’s it for gigs. I like to see people performing, live, in front of me, but I see this less than I’d like, in a world where money is very much an object.

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Can you feel the farce?

Here’s something new: going to the theatre to see a farce. Well, kind of. I went to the Curzon Mayfair, a cinema, on Thursday night to enjoy the latest NT Live link-up, whereby a performance from the very stage of the National Theatre is beamed live to a number of cinemas up and down this land, and in fact around the world, where it will be nearly live. (If you want to find out more about this fantastic initiative – even more pertient if you don’t live in stupid London – check out their website.) The play was One Man, Two Guvnors, adapted by Richard Bean from the 1743 Italian Commedia dell’arte farce Arlecchino servitore di due padroni, or Servant of Two Masters, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring James Corden, as a modern-day truffaldino, or harlequin. It was a revelation.

A summer smash at the National with five-star reviews stamped on its forehead, here was our chance to see it at cinema prices, and – as per previous NT Live events we’ve attended, Hamlet and Frankenstein – with the advantage of close-ups and other filmic devices. I didn’t know what to expect, not having read any of the reviews, or even really looked into the type of comedy it was. I knew it would be interesting to see Corden back where he belongs, onstage, and I knew he’d been praised from the rooftops for his work in it. I knew it was set in the early 60s, but that was about it. I didn’t know anything about it being Italian. So I was quite taken aback when the curtains parted – after some live skiffle songs by a band in period costume – and some actors started acting as if they were perhaps in an episode of On The Buses. They winked at the audience, and declaimed unrealistically, and spoke in comedy voices, and I guess the 1963 setting merely added to the sitcom feel. I thought it was funny, and cleverly written, and when a man who was clearly a woman (Jemima Rooper) turned up, I started to “get it”. I was watching a farce. Now, my experience of the theatre is limited. I understand that it’s not like watching a film. It’s sort of unrealistic by definition. It’s men and women on a stage pretending to be something they’re not. I like the theatricality of the medium, but it takes a bit of decompression when you’re so used to seeing fiction that has been filmed and lit and treated to look real.

One Man, Two Guvnors is basically about Corden’s corpulent bodyguard (I’m not insulting him, it’s part of the character) taking on two jobs – he works for the woman pretending to be her dead twin brother, and for the posh man (Oliver Chris from The Office and Green Wing) who killed her dead twin brother, both of whom have a trunk, and are expecting a letter from the Post Office, and don’t realise that the other is also in Brighton. Confusion ensues. Now that I know it was originally set in 18th century Venice, I can sort of understand it better, but the brilliance of this reworking is that it’s been redrawn for a modern audience. As a fan of slapstick as a kid, I really enjoyed the physical silliness. There’s a long scene in which Corden, who’s really hungry, has to serve both masters a gourmet meal in two dining rooms without either of them finding out, while squirreling away food for himself, and it involves a “member of the audience” being dragged up onstage, and the whole thing might have been out of particularly skilful edition of Crackerjack or Right Charlie with Charlie Cairoli. It’s like pantomime for grown-up theatregoers. It’s funny, and mad, and designed by experts to make you hoot out loud, but it’s also, I would say, an acquired taste.

The people either side of us were guffawing and crying and squealing with delight. I occasionally snorted and shook my chair, but on the whole, I was appreciating it inwardly. James Corden was incredible: funny on every level. Some of the schtick he did with the trunk, and with a dustbin lid, and with the gourmet meal, and some letters, was exceptional. He moves lithely for a big lad. He also dealt superbly with a seemingly unexpected bit of audience interaction, although I’m prepared to discover that this was also planted and set up. Whichever it was, he either improvised well, or pretended to, and both are skills.

Props also to an actor called Tom Edden, who turned up as an 87-year-old waiter with the requisite shaky hand and pacemaker, and stole the show. He seems to have been singled out in every review I’ve subsquently read. This was physical comedy of the very highest order, and perhaps the sort that would only work onstage. (Ironically, I was watching it on a cinema screen, but you know what I mean.) Although I am drawn to verbal comedy in my adult life, the childhood slapstick fan still exists within me, and I’m a sucker for a good pratfall. Tom Edden may be the king of this particular discipline.

So, I’ve gone and seen an actual Italian farce. Tick that one off then. (It made sense of Fawlty Towers, in many ways.)

Gods, monsters

To the Curzon in Mayfair for our second go at NT Live, where the National Theatre in London beams one of its productions, live, or as-live, around the whole world. This time: the much-discussed rendition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by writer Nick Dear and director Danny Boyle. Having already seen and been enthralled by Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet in this format in December, I can honestly say that this experience topped it. Not only was the production something to behold, but Hamlet was in the smaller Screen 2 at the Mayfair – we were moved there to accommodate the gala opening of some new film called The King’s Speech, which sank without a trace as far as I can tell. Anyway, Frankenstein was in the massive Screen 1. Much better. (You can read about how much I enjoyed Hamlet here.)

Here’s the deal: people at the National Theatre on the South Bank watch actors do a play. People not at the theatre but in cinemas around the country, and the world, also watch actors do a play, at the same time. It’s a brilliant initiative, and even better if you’re a member of the Curzon and your tickets are discounted. But it’s particularly brilliant if you don’t live in London. I know because people were chattering excitedly about it on Twitter yesterday that it was showing at the mighty Duke Of York’s in Brighton, for instance. Find out more about NT Live here. So, that’s the background. What about the play? After all, the play’s the thing.

Well, Frankingstein has been running for a month at the National and has been showered with positive notices. (Emma Freud, who stands in the NT auditorium and introduces the live link-up while confused theatregoers take their seats behind her and gawp vacantly into the camera, informed us that people are queuing up for tickets at 1am. I must admit, we booked our tickets for the Curzon showing before Christmas, sensing a sellout, which it was. Imagine a play that not only sells out the theatre it is in, but auditoriums it is not in.) You have to see these things for yourself sometimes. I am not an inveterate theatregoer, as we have established. I’ve seen some plays. Living in London is a bit of a privilege in that sense, but I’ve always felt a little bit ripped off when I’ve seen some men and ladies standing around talking to each other. If I’m going to pay West End prices, I want to see men and ladies dancing and singing. So, bear that in mind when I review this, as I am only comparing it to a handful of other plays I have seen. In many ways, I’m an easy lay, as I am just excited to be watching a play.

Danny Boyle is known as a filmmaker, but he started out in the theatre, as everyone will tell you. Well, that’s as may be, but he brought a cinematic eye and sense of occasion to Frankenstein. Beginning with the creature’s birth and following his infantile development – he walks! he talks! he reads Milton! – most of the first act is wordless. It’s just Benedict Cumberbatch (or Jonny Lee Miller – the pair alternate the main roles of Creature and Frankstein) crawling and hobbling around the vast, bare stage, and grunting his way to coherence. Ironically, although this section is a tour de force, it’s made more cinematic when you watch it in the cinema, as you get close-ups and pans, and – something really special for the non-theatre audiences – aerial shots! So, what we saw in the Curzon is not what they saw at the National. They will say theirs was better, because they were in the same hall as Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller off of the telly and the films, but I will say that ours was better. Funnily enough, the theatre crowd were still rudely talking when the play started. We were really quiet in the cinema. A huge bell sounds to signal the play has started, and yet, there they were, the big London theatre ponces, still muttering as Cumberbatch’s hand started feeling around inside the womb of his creation.

Unless you can afford to go twice in succession, you’re going to have to play the Cumberbatch/Lee Miller Lottery like the rest of us. Who will it be? It’s like a theatrical Kinder Egg – literally, as the creature bursts out of his membranous shell. Having experienced the full two hours, with no interval (Danny Boyle the bad boy rule-breaker!), I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I’m glad we got the Cumberbatch monster. It is a performance to leave your head spinning with its sheer physicality, nuanced grostequery and well balanced pathos/bathos. Lee Miller has less to do as the professor, less stagetime, and he had an audible sore throat last night, so heaven knows how he’ll cope as the grunting and squealing monster tonight. Vocalzone to the rescue, one hopes.

It’s actually scary, which is no mean feat for a stage play. The design and the lighting were spare and epic at the same time, with a stunning ceiling light made of hundreds of tiny individual bulbs that could undulate or burst into a retina-searing dazzle, and a revolving circular stage that occasionally gave birth to bits of scenery, and also coped with rain, snow and a roaring fire from below, not to mention a strip of what looked like actual grass that seemed to grow from nowhere. The design and the music – by Underworld – combined to create a fabulously Gothic setting, against which a fine cast could do their best with a script that at times was over-ripe, but on the whole managed to balance the philosophical and the portentous with bawdy and silly humour. You might find, say, the broad Scottish accents of the graverobbing crofter and his son a bit Fraser-from-Dad’s-Army, but it’s a period piece, and you have to take that onboard. There is no trendy modernisation here. It’s all industrial machinery and gaslight and rabbit stew cooked over a hearth. Naomie Harris off of the telly and the films, had a thankless part as Frankenstein’s intended, Elizabeth, until the grisly denouement, but Karl Johnson was fantastic as the old blind man who “sees” past the creature’s ugliness and identifies his soul.

I wonder if Cumberbatch and Lee Miller will share the theatre awards next year? They sort of should. Many critics said that Lee Miller’s monster was better than Cumberbatch’s. But they saw both.

I tried to read Shelley’s novel in my early twenties and gave up, defeated. Maybe I’ll give it another crack. They played a short making-of documentary before the play – risking letting light in upon magic, although the footage was from rehearsals and not the production itself – and Frankenstein was described by some academic or other as a creation myth for the age of science. This is a fascinating idea, and one that’s not fully explored in, say, the classic 1931 film of Frankenstein, which, as Boyle notes, took away the creature’s voice. His version gives it back.

Oh, and despite a full house, the two seats in front of us were empty. RESULT!

Hellooo-ooo, Bloomsbury!

This is the terrifying if grandly appointed prospect that faces us if jaded, blasé, London-based fans of the podcast don’t hurry up and buy a ticket for Collings & Herrin Live at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London’s Bloomsbury, situated near where Ricky Gervais used to live.

It’s such a nice space – I’ve played it many times under the militant-atheist wing of Robin Ince, and also as a support act, with Stuart Maconie and David Quantick, for Lloyd Cole (true!), while Richard and his Oxbridge chums have performed As It Occurs To Me there, along with countless other spots – but it is even nicer if it’s full of merry people. A couple of hundred have already booked, but the more the merrier.

So, it’s all happening a week today, and these are the details, one last time:

  • Monday, September 27, Bloomsbury Theatre, 15 Gordon Street, London WC1H 0AH; tickets £15 – to reiterate: this is a full show, with solo stand-up from both of us, plus the extended podcast itself, which will be available to download the next morning as if that’s any kind of consolation prize, and we expect an exclusive, non-broadcast Q&A if you behave yourselves – tickets available here