Reviews from shows, plays, comedies and music events.

Merry Hell at the Altar with a very Grateful Fred


Merry Hell rocking it out at the Nordic Church

Can you just imagine the telephone conversation…

“Hello, This is Grateful Fred …No not dead, FRED …Yes, we’d like to play Merry Hell in your church”.

Well Colin Maddocks (aka Grateful Fred) and Merry Hell’s Virginia Kettle obviously managed to convince the powers that be, that their intentions were good and that the request had nothing to do with Zombies or Satanism, because the Concert For The Refugees went ahead this week at The Nordic Church in Liverpool, raising over £1,300 for  “Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)” who undertake amazing work throughout the world helping refugees.


The Good Intentions

It was a great night of music at this magnificent venue, with Wigan-based folk rock band “Merry Hell” in the headline spot, supported by ‘The Grateful Fred Ukulele Trio” and “The Good Intentions”.

And that’s how the evening started – with Good Intentions. Or at least two-thirds of them. Peter Davies on guitar and Gabrielle Monk on accordion, opened with a lovely set of Americana Country songs from the band’s extensive repertoire.


The Grateful Fred Ukulele Trio

Then it was over to the Grateful Fred Ukulele Trio.

I’d heard good things about these guys but …Wow! this was not the sort of sound I was expecting from three blokes strumming ukuleles!

This was largely because there was little or no traditional uke strumming going on during their fantastically entertaining set. And definitely no leaning on lamp-posts!

These guys have transformed my perception of that humble little instrument forever! Colin has put together a band in the classic lead, rhythm and bass formation – but using ukuleles instead of guitars!

Yes, that’s right, I did say bass!  Halfway through their first song I found myself wondering why they had a bass player hidden away somewhere out of sight.  But no. It was Colin, stage centre, with a tiny (in bass instrument terms) bass ukulele, who’s 21 inch scale was producing a sound as deep and rich as you’d expect from a full scale bass guitar.

20160223-1129His right-hand man Vince Gillespie made a tiny uke sing like an electric guitar, with lead riffs at times reminiscent of those heard on Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock album.

The Rhythm section came in the animated form of Pete McPartland performing on a six stringed uke and sharing lead vocals with Colin.

Their set was varied, lively and highly entertaining, with Pete and Colin ripping through the instrumental solos with the rock ‘n roll style face-offs normally reserved for Quo rockers Parfitt and Rossi.  Magic stuff!


Folk Rockers, Merry Hell

And the rock ‘n roll continued …with the gusto and fervor that comes with every Merry Hell performance. The infectious enthusiasm, the rousing melodies and the catchy meaningful lyrics  had the whole audience tapping, clapping, singing along and (quite literally) dancing in the aisles.

You never see a glum face at a Merry Hell gig.

The old favourites were there, including the likes of Drunken Serenade, Crooked Man, Baker’s Daughter and Bury Me Naked, and some new favourites too like the title track off the “Ghost in our House” album. There were moments of  poignancy, and a sense of outrage even, on their the anti-war song Old Soldier.

20160223-1156Then, at the end of the evening, just before their usual rip-roaring finale, they silenced every tapping foot and touched every heart in the room with the most beautiful a cappella rendition of a brand new Bob Kettle song, Refugee.  All six band members took a verse each. How they did it without choking up on the touchingly beautiful sad lyrics is testament to their professionalism.

All in all, a fabulous evening thoroughly enjoyed by the capacity audience who all gave generously to the worthy charitable cause. And it was all down to the organising skills of Virginia Kettle and Colin Maddock.

We are ALL grateful Fred!20160223-1173

By |February 25th, 2016|4 Comments

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Brick Up The Mersey Tunnels 2016

20160203-0731I had this horrible nightmare:

What if they were to brick up the Mersey Tunnels? We’d never get through to the Royal Court to see such fabulous comedies like… Brick Up The Mersey Tunnels!

Happily, the subterranean routes into Liverpool are clear, allowing theatre goers from the Wirral, Wales and beyond ample opportunity to see this hilarious play.

Written over a decade ago by Dave Kirby and Nicky Allt, “Brick Up” has been heralded as the play that kick-started the Royal Court’s return to glory. It keeps coming back and it keeps putting bums on seats, and has been seen by over two hundred thousand people since it’s Royal Court début in 2006.

20160203-0634The play explores, and exaggerates, the cultural differences between “The Wirral Set”, personified by Anne Twacky and her long suffering husband Dennis, and the Grafton going grafters from scouseland proper, such as Dicky Lewis.

It is more than the posh Mrs Twacky can bear to engage a coarse scouser to build her conservatory – but needs must and he has after all, built extensions for just about any famous name you care to drop. And Dicky does, at every opportunity!

The plot is simple. Just read the title. But the events leading up to that final deed are laced with some of the finest comedy cameos that have ever been written.

20160203-0665The cast are magnificent and it is no coincidence that, bar one, they are made up of the same actors who appeared in the very first showing a decade ago.  They got it right then – and they have stuck with it.

Eithne Browne and Roy Brandon play the posh Twackies to perfection, and you couldn’t ask for a more typical scouse scally than the former Scully, Andrew Schofield.

Schofield is so loved by the Royal Court audiences, a cheer goes up the minute he first appears on stage.

20160203-0700Carl Chase plays the part of Nick Walton, architect of the plot to block the tunnels, with Gerard Gardner (played by Paul Duckworth) completing the dream team that would go down in history as The Kingsway Three!

20160203-0702Much of the planning is done in a greasy spoon café run by the delectable Maggie (played by the delectable Suzanne Collins) who spends much of her time fending off the advances of her customers before falling for the dapper shrimp salesman Elliot Neston (played by shrimp-sized Adam Keast).

These actors just bounce off each other. The on-stage chemistry is magic and you can tell that they are so at ease with their parts, they can’t help taking every opportunity to wind each other up, making for some wonderful ad-lib humour. This is particularly evident in the scenes where the three “Wirral Ladies That Lunch” get together.

20160203-0663Andrew Schofield in a wig and dress is a sight to behold as he plays the part of Dee Estuary alongside Francis Tucker whose portrayal of the randy Liz Card was slapstick heaven.

The one member of the original cast who was unavailable for this run, Davey Edge, was in the audience on press night, and it was a lovely touch that he got an honorary mention from the stage during the curtain call.

Everything about this show, under the extremely skilled direction of Bob Eaton, is just wonderful.  The live music, both from the pit and frequently on stage too, is testament to the talents of Musical Director Howard Gray and his team.

It is a play I have seen several times over the past ten years and is one I would not hesitate to see again.

To give it any less than a 5-Star rating would be a travesty.

Brick Up The Mersey Tunnels runs until 5th March.  Tickets start at just £13 and stall tickets can be purchased with a meal for an extra tenner!

Click image to enlarge

By |February 8th, 2016|0 Comments

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Those Desperate Scousewives – Pulling a Christmas Cracker Again!

20160130-0552Desperate Scousewives 2 – Pullin a Christmas Cracker is a fast-moving, rawkus scouse comedy full of witty one-liners, hard hitting punchlines and, if you’ve spent any time in scouseland, totally believable characters.

Written and directed by Liverpool actress Lynne Fitzgerald, the story centres around a birth. Not quite a seasonal virgin birth, but nevertheless one that was not anticipated by the father whose time spent in prison has been a touch longer than the usual gestation period.

20160130-0592Hapless escaped convict Jay (played by body-builder Ronnie Orr) has escaped from Walton Prison to be beside his desperate scousewife in time for the birth of the child she is carrying.  And much to the delight of the women in the audience, Ronnie’s physique figures quite prominently on stage when you consider his character appears to have absconded from prison immediately after stepping out of the shower!

Playing the part of Vanessa, actress Charlie Griffiths carries her full-term theatrical ‘bump’ remarkably convincingly, and the birth scene – complete with ‘selfies’ – is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen!

20160130-0587Charlie and the other three desperate scousewives, played by Lynn Francis, Lindsey Germaine and the show’s writer Lynne Fitzgerald execute their roles superbly, with all the fast-moving hilarity, pushing, shoving and door slamming of a latter-day farce.

In addition to playing the residents of numbers one to four, these talented ladies change character twice during the show.  First as deaf, daft and batty pensioners and then, in total contrast, as a bunch of ne’er-do-well hoodie-wearing teenage lads up to no good in the back streets.

20160130-0580The play is a masterclass of character acting that will have you in stitches.  And that final scene – in which Vanessa gives birth, aided by the quite desperate midwives – is guaranteed to have your sides splitting!

Now in its third season, word is getting around about the Desperate Scousewives shows and it was heartening to see all the performances completely sold out at New Brighton’s Floral Pavilion.

The Desperate Scousewives are set to return to the Floral Pavilion on Thursday 14th July with Desperate Scousewives 3- “THAT MOMENT YOU REALIZE!”,   It’s a brand new comedy full of abrasive Liverpool wit written by Lynne Fitzgerald and tells the tale of Susan (Lynne Fitzgerald), Vanessa (Charlie Griffiths), Gayle (Gemma Brodrick) and Donna (Jenni Cartwright) and their hilarious Summer capers.

It’s gonna be a belter – don’t miss it!

By |February 2nd, 2016|0 Comments

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A dispiriting lack of “Welcome in the Vales”

20151226_151102After a nice Boxing Day walk up Lady Bagot’s Drive, we called in at the Drovers Arms in Rhewl and found this framed press cutting from September 1982 with a picture I had taken of Mum and Dad when they retired from running the pub after 26 years. They had taken over the tenancy in 1956 from my Mum’s brother George and before him, my grandfather John Lewis.

We’ll keep a welcome in…
A lot has changed since then, sadly not all for the better. Five minutes into enjoying my Guinness, another couple walked in, and were greeted with “We’re closed”.

Then the cheery Christmas tree lights were switched off.

A couple of minutes later another gent walked in… “We’re closed”.

Glancing at the several customers with half full glasses, he asked: “Oh. Any chance I could just get a quick Coca-Cola?”. This reasonable enough request was met with an abrupt: “Well I’ve just said no to somebody else, so I’m not going to serve you, am I!”

I couldn’t believe the way the landlord was speaking to people bringing him custom. My dear old Mum and Dad, overseeing this from their gilded picture frame, would have been turning in their graves!

As the still thirsty traveller vacated the building, the landlord switched off the remaining lights in the area where we were sitting, me with half of my Guinness still remaining. Obviously aggrieved at the fact we hadn’t taken the hint and leapt up the minute the tree lights had gone out, he snapped: “Finish off now”.

I interpreted this to mean “We’ve had your money, now sod off”.

I am utterly astonished at the lack of Christmas Cheer being shown to customers at a time when pubs locally are closing down at an alarming rate.

It saddens me to say, that will be the last time I shall darken the door of the inn that was my family home for almost sixty years.

Meanwhile, I’d like to wish you all a Happy and Prosperous New Year. All except the present incumbent of the Drovers, that is!


The good old days. Mum and Dad (Jim and Effie Birchall) at the Drovers in the fifties, and a painting by the late Arthur Dalrymple.

By |December 27th, 2015|8 Comments

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The Telegraph – Best Folk Music Albums of 2015

Click the picture to read the review

Click the picture to read the review

There’s a great read in The Telegraph this week. The 58 best Folk Albums of 2015, reviewed by the paper’s culture editor Martin Chilton.

There are some of the names you’d expect, such as Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention plus some newcomers too.  I was particularly pleased to see Wirral lad Joe Topping up there with his new album The Vagrant Kings, and the Wigan based folk rock group Merry Hell (whose drummer Andy Jones lives in my home town of Ruthin) with their third album A Ghost in our House and Other Stories.

It’s a great read and a good way to find additions to your folk music collection.

And if you like your music live, you can catch Merry Hell, up close and personal at Ruthin AllStyles Music Club where they will be performing a Showcase on Thursday 19th November. Get Tickets (£7)

By |October 25th, 2015|0 Comments

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