Reviews from shows, plays, comedies and music events.

The Lighting was Hell, the band were Merry

Listen while you read

It’s no secret that one of my favourite folk rock bands in the Wigan based Merry Hell.

They are lively, uplifting, and highly entertaining. They write songs in the modern folk ethos, with keen, wry, often humorous, observations of life and love. And when touched by discrimination, injustice and political malfeasance, they protesteth well through the medium of song.

We’ve had them perform at our own folk and acoustic club on a number of occasions, and indeed they will be back again in November [Link].

They are a great band to photograph too. The three Kettle bothers; gravelly voiced Andrew in his dapper suits, the plectrum chewing John with his animated guitar style, and the hirsute and behatted Bob with a face full of character that randomly breaks into the widest of smiles. And of course there’s the lovely Virginia, who is great to photograph because of her nimble and gesticulous performances, and just because she’s the lovely Virginia.

As this particular gig was at a club in a neighbouring town, I’d awarded myself a night off and left my camera at home, only to find on arrival, an SLR being pressed into my hand. I agreed to the request, quietly self-imposing a “three songs and out” rule so I could relax and enjoy the show.

You will have guessed by now that this is not so much a music review, being filed primarily under “Photography Talk”. Please go here for past Merry Hell reviews, and Here for Ron Lester’s review of the Rhyl gig.

The camera was a Fuji S5. My first digital SLR had been the Fuji S1 which I still have but rarely use. It was low on megapixels and lacked the ability to shoot raw, but I always loved the smooth skin tones produced by the unique pixel structure of  its ‘Super CCD’.

Being a Nikon user, the S5 felt comfortable, based as it was on the 2006 iteration of the Nikon D200. Because it was dark and there was a gig to enjoy, I didn’t have the time nor inclination to fully familiarise myself, so I went with the camera’s settings as they were. Luckily, I spotted the fact the auto-focus was set to dynamically focus using the centre spot, so not wanting to trawl through an unfamiliar menu, I utilised the focus lock button the ensure it didn’t keep drifting to focus on the background.

For this type of shoot, in the inevitable low level lighting, I tend to shoot on Shutter Prioriy at a 30th with auto ISO.

As well as the four main band members, there were the back line bass and fiddle players, Nick Davies  and Neil McCartney to consider. Getting all six in one shot was always going to be a challenge, so I altered my vantage point for each of the three songs. Whilst I was precariously perched  atop a rickety bar stool, Virginia announced she wanted everyone to sway along to “Bury Me Naked”. As infectious as the music was, I declined, not wanting to be buried just yet, naked or otherwise.

“I’ll send you the files”, he said, as I handed back the camera . What he meant was “will you process them for me too”. Anyway I didn’t really mind. Ron’s a mate, and he never objects when the tables are turned and I thrust a camera into his hands at our own club.

The following day, three dozen Jpegs appeared in my Dropbox, under-exposed (I knew they would be) and with the colour balance from hell (I knew this too).  What I hadn’t known was that the camera was set to shoot only Jpegs. Ah well. The Fuji’s firmware had done it’s best to cope with the mixture of low power tungsten, halogen and led spot/floods that illuminate the business end of Rhyl Folk & Acoustic’s clubroom, and in doing so had stripped out a hell of a lot of the digital ‘meat’ I am used to dealing with in my own NEF RAW files.

The sliders in Lightroom’s Develop Module looked like  something created by Salvador Dali, but we got there in the end and the images turned out quite reasonable considering the conditions.

I was satisfied with the images and had got to enjoy my first Merry Hell fix of the year.

By |February 14th, 2017|0 Comments

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Brick Up 2 – The Revenge of Ann Twacky

If you were wondering what gave Donald Trump the idea for his Mexican Wall, well I reckon he must have been amongst the 175,000 people who came to see the original “Brick Up The Mersey Tunnels” at The Royal Court.

So successful was Dave Kirby and Nick Allt’s comedy, that it enjoyed no fewer than six runs of up to six weeks each, becoming the theatre’s signature play, and introducing thousands to the very special brand of scouse humour for which the Royal Court is known and loved.

Quite apart from the fact it was brilliantly written, its success was based on the fact that – using a footballing analogy – it was something of a local derby, attracting fans from both sides of the Mersey. The posh Wirralites, with their CH post codes, loved the play just as much as the down-to-earth scousers on the L side, even though the ‘first round match’ was won by the scallies across the water.

It became the perfect scouse comedy, and you can’t improve on perfection …or can you? Move over Brick Up, make way for Brick Up 2 – The Wrath Of Ann Twacky. Maybe this time the tables have been turned.

The story picks up where the first “Brick Up” ended, with the mayhem that had been caused by the sealing-up of the tunnels and the explosive demise of the Runcorn Bridge.

It tells of the joy and the despair resulting from these acts of “terrorism”; of the joy and despair that followed the tunnels reopening; and of the joy and despair in the plot to do it all over again.

Sticking to the tested and successful formula, the producers chose not only the same writers, but pretty much the same cast. The only changes were to bring in Danny Burns to play entrepreneur Elliot Neston, and Emily Linden to make a brief appearance as a gun-totting anti-terrorist cop.

The excruciatingly posh Eithne Browne (she’s not in real life) returns as Ann Twacky, partnered by Roy Brandon as her formerly down-trodden husband Dennis, who has finally kicked over the traces and grown a pair.

Andrew Schofield is back as the archetype scally and cowboy builder Dicky Lewis. His facial expressions and the way he delivers his lines with perfect timing and comedic inflection, would have you in fits of laughter even if he was reciting from the phone book. And when he dons a frock to transition into the part of Wirral Ladies Group member, Dee Estuary, you can see what a master of comedy this man is.

The third Wirral Ladies character, Liz Card, was played to perfection by Francis Tucker whose wonderful facial, as well as vocalised, innuendo often result in his being cast as the Pantomime Dame, not withstanding his wide ranging appearances on stage, film and television.

The lovely Suzanne Collins showed us that her character Maggie, was something of a turn-coat by becoming an imperfectly posh Margaret who had difficulty keeping up both the pretence and the accent, hilariously slipping back into “The Queen’s Scouse”.

Along with Dicky Lewis, Gerard Gardner and Nick Walton are The Queensway Three, responsible for the tunnel campaign. Gerard is played by seasoned Royal Court comedy actor Paul Duckworth, with the face that launched a thousand laughs, and the part of Nick Walton is played by Carl Chase, who also steps up throughout the performance to narrate via the medium of song in his wonderful baritone voice.

All credit to Director Bob Eaton for his visualisation of a great script, and Musical Director Howard Gray for bringing the show musically to life via the talented musicians in the pit and on the stage.

It had crossed my mind that to ‘get’ this play, one would have had to have seen the original Brick Up, but thanks to the way “the story so far” has been cleverly woven into Carl’s mellifluous narration, Brick Up virgins can enjoy this fab comedy just as much as the Brick Up groupies who’ve spent the past decade coming back for more.

To sum up… a highly enjoyable and entertaining comedy, regardless of which side of the Mersey you come from. It even trumps the hilarious one-liners we are currently hearing on a daily basis from the farce that is being played out at The White House!

Undeniably Five Stars. Don’t think twice – go and see it!

By sheer coincidence, line improvements by MerseyRail have resulted in a suspension of the Wirral to Liverpool train service for a six week period exactly matching the duration of the play’s run. This prompted the producers to commission a brilliant piece of P.R. in the form of a huge billboard advert at the approach to the Kingsway tunnel, featuring actress Ethne Browne, as Ann Twacky, looking motorists straight in the eye, with the words: The tunnels are next! 

Click image to enlarge

By |February 3rd, 2017|1 Comment

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Scouse of the Rising Sun

“Scouse of the Rising Sun has the right amount of silliness and slapstick, blistering one-liners and a plot steeped in international espionage, all expertly woven into a wonderful patchwork blanket of musical mayhem that will have you laughing until you cry”

20161205-5625After a highly successful run of seven years with the same writer, surely it’s not possible that a change could be as good as a rest?

Many doubted it. In fact I wouldn’t mind betting quite a few reviewers had prepared the phrase “Come back Fred Lawless, all is forgiven” ready for use in this year’s Christmas show reviews.

In the event, such rhetoric would have been totally unwarranted. Scouse of the Rising Sun has taken to the Royal Court stage like a duck to water, and the audiences are taking it into their hearts.

20161205-5614To his credit, the script’s writer Kevin Fearon has resisted the temptation to deviate from the winning formula. As executive producer, he’s worked closely with all of Fred Lawless’s scripts over the years.

He has seen the way directors like Bob Eaton interpret them and how the actors, chosen for their unique brand of ‘scousness’, deliver the carefully crafted lines with precisely the right measure of innuendo.

Most of all he knows the Royal Court audiences, what they want, what keeps them loyal and coming back for more.

20161205-5664Scouse of the Rising Sun has the right amount of silliness and slapstick, blistering one-liners and a plot steeped in international espionage, all expertly woven into a wonderful patchwork blanket of musical mayhem that will have you laughing until you cry.

And what a patchwork… From disco to contemporary dance, from Shakespeare to James Bond, from Queen to Waltzing Matilda. Not to mention the zaniest version of “House of the Rising Sun” that you are ever likely to hear. All credit to musical director Howard Gray and his four-piece band tucked away in the upper reaches of the cleverly designed stage set.

All eight actors have an intimate knowledge of the Royal Court stage. Each one of them injects a uniqueness into their portrayal of their larger than life characters. There are no ‘bit parts’. They each share the lead with one another.

It’s not just me!
How ever much I am enjoying a show myself, I always take time to look around me and soak up the reaction of the rest of the audience. That mutuality was very much in evidence. The uncontrollable laughter, the cheers and jeers, and the enthusiastic applause was testament enough.

5-star-ratingEvery year I wonder how these Christmas shows could possibly get any better, yet every year that’s just what they do. And this one is no exception.

Get along and catch this wonderful show between now and January 14th. You deserve a treat!

20161205-5680

 

By |December 8th, 2016|0 Comments

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Merry Hell at the Hermon

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Hermon Chapel (picture – Barry Edwards)

Destined to be bull-dozed, the Hermon Chapel was purchased by social worker and Oswestry Town Councillor Duncan Kerr, whose vision and sheer hard work has transformed the building into a premises for public meetings, music performance and movie screenings.

Retaining the layout and furnishings of a traditional Welsh chapel, Duncan has added a tiny licensed bar, a sound system and stage lighting to create a performance space accommodating an audience of a little over 100.

There are some who might possibly play merry hell over the thought of  the former holy building being used for rock music, and that, figuatively speaking, is what happened last weekend. It was, of course, all good natured as those nicest of folk rockers, Merry Hell, descended from Wigan to perform their stuff.

20161120-5386

Bob Kettle

The band’s six-piece acoustic(ish) line-up played two 45 minute sets that included many of their old favourites like Bury Me Naked and Drunken Serenade, and some from their newly released album Bloodlines, (a hairy review of which will follow soon).

The cosy atmosphere was fabulous and the band’s energetic enthusiasm for everything they do rubbed off onto the appreciative audience, many of whom where, quite literally, dancing in the aisles. Bob kettle’s new ‘alternative anthem’ Come on England, was one of the highlights for me. Another was his emotional and poignant song about refugees, Coming Home, sung by the entire band, a cappella.

The band were, as always, stunningly brilliant. If you’ve never seen them, please do! And if you can get to see them in a lovely little venue such as this, all the better.

 

By |November 29th, 2016|0 Comments

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Father O’Flaherty Saves a’r Souls (careful how you say it)

20161019-4802I can tell you from experience, that it’s one of the scariest things – to walk out on stage by yourself, in front of an auditorium full of expectant people. And I imagine it’s even worse when you are about to perform in the very first play that you’ve written yourself. So I wonder what the best tactic should be when that auditorium is full of journalists who have turned up especially to review your show.

In such circumstances, I guess you should choose your words carefully for your opening gambit. Well, how about, in your best drunken Irish priest accent, something along the lines of: “Ah. Press Night. Just look at you all, yer great shower of bastards”!

20161019-4905Haha! Only the inimitable Alan Stocks could carry off a stunt like that in front of one of the most critical of theatre audiences: The Reviewers. Not only did he get away with it, but every one of that shower of bastards spent the next two hours laughing until their ribs ached, before rising for one of the most enthusiastic standing ovations I’ve ever witnessed on a Press Night .

In The Beginning
Father O’Flaherty is a character originally conceived by Liverpool playwright Fred Lawless for “Merry Ding Dong”, his first ever Christmas show for the Royal Court, and Alan Stocks was cast for the part. I remember watching that play back in 2009 and thinking that this was the best drunken priest I’ve ever seen played by a stone cold sober actor.

20161019-4922He went down so well with Royal Court audiences that Father O’Flaherty was written into the theatre’s next Christmas show and the next, and the… Well I think you get the picture.  I get the feeling Fred Lawless came up with so many fabulous scripts by starting with a title and figuring how Father O’Flaherty going fit into this story line, before writing the rest of the script around him!

You Can’t Get Rid of the Good Father
Alan made the character his own. But with Fred Lawless taking a sabbatical from writing the Christmas show, it looked like it looked like the good father’s run was about to come to an end.

20161019-4895But the Royal Court producers were having none of it. They asked Alan if he would consider writing a new play himself, based entirely around the drunken Irish priest.

It was quite a challenge for someone who’d never actually written anything himself before, and he was the first to admit it was a somewhat daunting task.

Alan needn’t have worried, Having come to know Father O’Flaherty rather intimately through the five or six previous plays, the whole thing came to together – not only effortlessly, but rather brilliantly.

20161019-4870With the help of four talented fellow actors Paul Duckworth (Father Devlin and God), Clare Bowles (Mrs Ruby), Helen Carter and Keddy Sutton (who played the good Sisters, Harley and Davidson) and one of the best directors in the business, Bob Eaton, they have come up with one of the craziest comedies I’ve seen in a long time. And this is no mean feat in what has been a particularly good year for scouse comedies!

Paul, who we are used to seeing cast as the bad guy, played a devilishly phoney cleric and an almighty big bad God.

Being Irish, Clare had no trouble with the accent as the priest’s grumpy housekeeper. The grumpy bit was damn good acting though, because she’s a lovely lady in reality.

There were some cracking musical moments amid the comedy. Helen Carter, in particular, belted out some superb numbers.

And Keddy Sutton… Well what can I say… Playing the part of a nun with multiple personality disorder, she hilariously transformed into some wonderfully convincing characters, including Peggy Mitchell and Cilla Black.

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Alan Stocks’ ten minute monologue alone is worth the ticket price.

About to deliver a sermon, and having misplaced his bible, the good priest declares: “Feck it, I don’t need the big book”. His cleverly scripted ‘Ad lib’ of the Gospel according to ‘Cool Hand Luke’ left hardly a dry eye in the house – and the same goes for a few of the seats too, I wouldn’t wonder!

In the league of five star comedies, Father O’Flaherty Saves Our Souls is definitely a five star plus. Do yourselves a favour. Get along to Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre before the 12th of November. I promise you won’t regret it.

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