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Review: Jonny and the Baptists: Bigger Than Judas

Posted on 04 October 2013 by Veronica Aloess

Jonny and the Baptists

The Soho Downstairs is the best place for a gig like this: with a bar that stays open throughout the show, the laughs keep flowing and the intimate room feels so packed that it’s still got some of the festival atmosphere this pair are used to playing in.

I confess that I have a massive soft spot for musical comedians, and am surprised I haven’t come across Jonny and the Baptists before; by the end of their set, fans are shouting out song requests as if this is more of a gig than a comedy show. This double act’s sound sits in the rock genre, making me think of Jonny and the Baptists as the British answer to Tenacious D.

Amongst their songs are some gems about pubs and giving blood, with the occasional socio-political bite, like their song about UKIP. Their wacky little number about soup comes in bursts between other songs and adds a quirkiness to their set that makes them stand out from just being witty. Their newest song about Angela Merkel is certainly verbose, and wasn’t really funny so much as impressive, but not yet good enough to première whilst they are still struggling to remember it. The subject of their songs is generally current events, but they could afford to take a few more risks with their jokes in an industry inundated with sharp satirists. For example, I don’t think – 13 years on – that a Princess Di joke is too risky and neither did the audience, but the joke about Prince Philip was a brilliant marriage of laughing at something while you know you shouldn’t be and that just making it even funnier.

Jonny Donahue’s routine seems entirely genuine, as if he’s improvising rather than reciting, which sits a lot more comfortably with an audience. Little things like quick quips and laughing at his own jokes occasionally, combined with his approachable attitude, make him somebody I’d happily watch for a couple more hours. His ‘baptist’, Paddy Gervers, is a multi-musically-talented man with an endearing presence and the most beautiful long flowing gold locks in all the land. Together they deliver their gags with faux-amateurism that gets some sweetly awkward laughs and wins the audience’s favour, but this pair are clearly far from an amateur partnership. This is the sort of duo that I can imagine getting bigger and bigger, following in the footsteps of the likes of Bill Bailey and Tim Minchin. You can’t help but want to buy their album and sing along to their genuinely catchy songs; they just need to cement their niche.

Jonny and the Baptists: Bigger Than Judas played at the Soho Theatre on 2 October. For more information and tickets for future performances, see the Jonny and the Baptists website.


Veronica Aloess

Veronica Aloess

Veronica Aloess is an aspiring arts journalist and playwright, who trained at Arts Educational School London and is currently studying towards a BA in English with Creative Writing at Brunel University. She is co-founder of Don't Make Me Angry Productions which is dedicated to original writing and innovative performance.

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Review: I’m With the Band

Posted on 31 August 2013 by Phoebe Eclair-Powell

I'm with the BandI’m With the Band by Tim Price is an entertaining and interesting idea – the United Kingdom represented by the individual members of a once indestructible indie rock band, ‘The Union’ – you gettit? Ok, so my politics is rusty, limited to Guardian blogs and reading the Metro, so I didn’t want to get anything wrong, and yet I think my ignorance is the point. I, like Damien, the frontman of the band who represents England (the brilliantly Sting-like James Hiller), am ignorant to the potential consequences of an independent Scotland, to the feelings of the slightly ignored Wales, and to the real continuing horrors of Ireland’s uneasy status quo. For me, then, this could have been a huge wake up call, and there were moments of real clarity of thought, but then there were simply moments where the idea outran itself.

The cast are multi-talented, likeable, and there is true comic genius in Matthew Bulgo the ‘Welsh, I am a dragon hear me roar, bassist’. But they can’t make up for the fact that they are allegories, not real people – as such there is little emotional depth and no real reason to care about the splitting up of this band of faded rockers from all corners of this increasingly fractured isle. It’s a shame because in a way we only ever then scratch the surface of both the emotional and political issues at hand – the ideas of betrayal, political manoeuvring, oppression, domination and independence are somewhat drowned out. Particularly drowned out by the constant shouting over one another (yes, yes I get that Scotland and Ireland are both yearning to be heard – but hardly any of the dialogue was audible, let alone digestible). All the indie rock and angry macho aggression culminated towards the end in a bit of a mess where the whole thing threatened to fall apart. It was a shame, but at this point things really didn’t seem to be able to resolve or come together, and instead it became like a really bad piece of performance art/stag night punch up.

And yet there are nuggets of gold in there – ideas of old age and performance, the premise of being an artist who doesn’t sell out being impossible in today’s climate, the redundancy of real musicians in an world of technology, an unknown future with a potentially independent Scotland and, most of all, the idea that “some people would die to be part of our band”. The very fact that whilst we fight amongst ourselves, there are people out there who see the UK as a prospective safe haven, a sanctuary and the show begins to wonder how can we keep that prospect alive.

This is nearly a great piece of theatre, but its instability in certain areas means it falls short of being brilliant. Then again, I am a smug English bastard who probably hasn’t realised the true meaning of it all.

I’m With The Band is playing at St James Theatre at from 28 August to 7 September. For more information and tickets see the St James Theatre website.

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Review: My Robot Heart

Posted on 23 June 2013 by Alexander Nicholson

Molly NaylorMolly Naylor leads a charming ramble through her thoughts on love, getting it together and Tilda Swinton in the small but perfectly formed Burton Taylor Studio, part of the Oxford Playhouse. Aided and accompanied by musical collaborators The Middle Ones, the trio use music as dramatic punctuation throughout the piece.

My Robot Heart is a theatrical experiment by Naylor, an amalgam of theatre, comedy and music, developed whilst searching for certainty and scientific precision in the eternally fickle, febrile field of love. She narrates the journeys of three characters from the same family, pre-teen Harry, bride-to-be Eliza, and her absent father, Jack, invoking their presence with icons: a battered backpack, a wilted veil, a depleted bottle of whiskey. Each of the characters has a relationship in which they struggle to be honest, to follow what Naylor argues is the “programming” inherent in all of us, and to love earnestly and without second-guessing. Their often flawed attempts to do so are what ties these three generations together, since their stories largely do not intersect; the impending wedding is the only real thing which links the trio. Thematically, however, the stories complement each other well. Each examines a different kind of relationship and paints remarkably rich images with minimal brush-strokes.

Eliza is front and centre throughout. Eliza is an extreme sports enthusiast and former manic pixie dream girl who learned everything she knows about emotions from pop music and cinema. One is left wondering what her practical, aggressively reasonable fiancé Mark was ever doing with a stroppy, deluded woman-child willing to argue at great length for the inclusion of Karma Chameleon on a wedding playlist. To no-one’s surprise, Eliza does a runner with the wedding weeks away, seeking sanctuary with her ex-bohemian brother Daniel, now firmly ensconced in the domestic contentment she both desires and rebels against. Equal parts coached and chivvied by Daniel and the movie Rear Window, Eliza hares off on another dramatic, cinematic gesture, while the universe punishes her for her failure to learn her lessons. Eliza is perhaps the character most prone to pace-slaying navel-gazing in what is otherwise a very lean and punchy show, though one cannot help but root for her, a Bridget Jones for the Twitter generation.

If Eliza is the star of the show, then Jack is the heart. Trying far too late to make amends for a lifetime of music, debauchery and not enough parenting, his mission is to write a suitable wedding speech, as father of the bride. Throughout his attempts he pushes to the back of his mind his impending expiration from an unspecified terminal illness, which nonetheless dominates his segments as the elephant in the room. Naylor confers an odd sort of vulnerability upon Jack, and his awkward waltz of coy e-mail correspondence with good Samaritan Maria is one of the most endearing segments of the play.

Harry, an 11-year-old boy at a new school, has the simplest arc, and also the shortest. His story is a tale of doing the right thing, or the socially acceptable thing: siding with the newly fatherless nerd Josh, or chief bully Alfie. Naylor shines here, dynamic and vibrant, to the extent that it is a disappointment when Harry’s role in the narrative ends before the second half. Trimmed late in development, perhaps, or cut for time?

The characters’ stories are interposed with Naylor’s apt and insightful musings about love and relationships in the twenty-first century. Many questions are raised, although she seems largely content to let her characters’ discoveries speak for themselves. The most common recurring element, the apocryphal tale of Kenji the robot programmed to love, serves to illustrate Naylor’s main conclusion: that love is by nature wild, irrational, unpredictable and utterly indispensable. Intense robo-hugging is only one of the myriad outcomes that may occur. One which, it is to be hoped, most of us will never experience.

My Robot Heart is a sweet, silly, bold production, marred very slightly by technical issues with sound levels, but otherwise enriched by The Middle Ones’s folky and fun contributions. The piece is endowed with great life and character by practised show-woman Molly Naylor, whose talents for physical theatre are explored but never fully stretched. Full of a thousand pithy observations, it will draw you into its intimate emotional world and send you out with a smile on your face.

My Robot Heart was at the Oxford Playhouse on 21 and 22 June. It os now touring. For tour dates, information and tickets, visit the Show and Tell website

Alexander Nicholson

Alexander Nicholson

Alex is a screenwriter and playwright born and raised in Stoke-on-Trent. He has studied at Warwick and UCLA, and once very nearly met Alistair Macgowan. His previous projects include a stint with Coventry-based Mixed Things Theatre.

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Spotlight on Mission Drift at The Shed

Posted on 04 June 2013 by Veronica Aloess

Mission Drift

American theatre company the TEAM is bringing its show Mission Drift to the National Theatre’s new pop up venue The Shed this June. Skyping across the globe, performers Brian Hastert and Ian Lassiter told me about why Mission Drift will strike a chord with audiences wherever they are in the world.

“The show has two concurrent storylines that you follow; one of them is a couple of Dutch teenagers in 1624, you follow them as they go from Amsterdam to New Amsterdam and then sweep across the country over the next 400 years, building and destroying what they built along the way until they get to Las Vegas,” says Hastert, explaining his half of the story. Lassiter’s story follows “the other couple, native Las Vegans who are in the middle of the housing market crash, and I play a dusty cowboy named Chris who is having his lands taken away, and has to figure out what moves to make in a town that’s becoming a deserted desert town.”

The TEAM spent a month in Las Vegas in June 2010 and Ian tells me how “having the fabric of the town and meeting everybody so we didn’t feel like we were just visiting really informed the soundscape that would eventually become the music of the show. We would go explore some area of Vegas then come back and Heather Christian [the composer] would write music about it, and we’d write scenes about it, and we’d fuse those together and that was the benchmark for creating the piece.”

Mission Drift is devised by the company and exemplifies the TEAM’s principal of ‘devising within a democracy’. “Democracy is a really problematic form of government because it’s really hard for a lot of people to try to say something and contribute to the direction of where you’re going, either on a national or local level, or in a group of people trying to make a play,” says Hastert. “We bring things in that excite us as much as possible and we see where other people want to jump on board, and where we want to jump on board with what the other people bring in. And while we are a democratic process in that way we do have a kind of overlord who is our artistic director, who at the end of the day edits things. There’s stuff that may seem exciting but is a bit of a distraction from the trajectory so she says ‘we’re going to move in this way’, so everybody kind of re-orients themselves and says, ‘so now then new democracy is over here, how can I contribute to that?’ It’s this constant back and forth.”

Lassiter joined the TEAM in 2010 to help finish Mission Drift and “chose to join because of how the TEAM creates. There’s a very fine balance to try to negotiate, you have to be absolutely passionate about your ideas and equally you have to be as ready to let them go for the greater good.” Hastert calls this “killing babies. You work hours on creating something and it’s great, and it works, and then suddenly one day you realise it doesn’t work in what we’ve made so you’ve got to slit the baby’s throat and bury it. But then a year later some of those babies may come back to life, it’s a weirdly emotional thing. Ian comes with that sense of play where you can jump in and say yes, and it’s a hard quality to find in performers.”

Hastert understandably doesn’t like the connotations of the term ‘musical’: “there’s a point where a characters’ feelings become so huge that all of a sudden just talking doesn’t do it, so they have to burst into song to convey what they’re really feeling; that’s like the theory behind musicals, and that’s not how the music functions here. It’s more like when the world expands to breaking point or changes shape, Heather explodes into song and changes the shape of the world for us all of a sudden.” Lassiter hopes audiences see “that not all musicals have to function the same way,” with Mission Drift, “it breaks straight play and musical moulds and I love that we’re not only playing with themes of capitalism but theatre form itself.”

I questioned whether the plot of Mission Drift was America-centric, to which Lassiter replied, “it’s not centric, definitely the larger theme is how America’s capitalism is effecting global capitalism, but we’ve played in many places now and I think that’s a theme that’s universally interesting.” Hastert continues, “whilst we designed the play around a very American personality type, beneath that is the desire to expand, to grow and accumulate, and to push your own boundaries, and that’s something that’s defined America in a major way, but it’s something that a lot of national identities around the world share. I think people tend to come into this play with a very strong relationship to the themes, either you kind of worship at the altar of the market gods or you hate it, and my hope is that the audience will identify in some emotionally resonant way with the other half of the equation.”

I’m excited about Mission Drift because of the TEAM’s mission statement. Hastert explains that the way the TEAM work is to “start with way too many ideas to possibly fit into the show, and figure out a way to possibly wrap those ideas in human hearts and hides and gives them a journey, so ideas are something you can actually care about because you can see the effect they have on the human spirit. We try to put those spirits through as much difficulty as we can and then turn it into a story.” That and, “it’s an epic story that’s 400 years in the making set to an incredible blues gospel soundtrack, I couldn’t imagine what you wouldn’t want to see in there!” It’s even got lizard ballet – that’s something you’ll have to see to work it out.

Mission Drift is playing at The Shed from 5-28 June. For more information and tickets:  www.nationaltheatre.org/shows/mission-drift.

Veronica Aloess

Veronica Aloess

Veronica Aloess is an aspiring arts journalist and playwright, who trained at Arts Educational School London and is currently studying towards a BA in English with Creative Writing at Brunel University. She is co-founder of Don't Make Me Angry Productions which is dedicated to original writing and innovative performance.

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