Wednesday 14 December 2016

2016 'Comedy' Self-Appraisal

Twenty sixteen has been a strange and busy year, creatively. After I won an award in 2015, I felt as if I had the wind in my sails. I abruptly got a few higher-profile-than-usual gigs, such as Pull the Other One and Knock2Bag, on line-ups that included people like Simon Munnery and Kevin Eldon.

I already had most of the elements of The Hay Wain Reloaded in place right at the start of the year. So I was able to preview it in January, although at that stage I didn't have a clear idea of what the show was trying to do, and I anticipated major rewrites. The process over the course of the year turned out to be one of working out why those elements had been there from the outset. When I discovered what the show actually meant to me personally, it was a thrilling experience.

So pleased was I with myself and The Hay Wain Reloaded, I fell into the trap of believing that it was entitled to popular success, and while it slowly built its audience of keen seekers in Edinburgh before the short run ended, it never attracted as many people as my previous shows did. I made numerous attempts to keep the show going in the second half of the year, but they all either came to nothing or fell through. I had to be content with putting the show on myself (at a financial loss) for two nights at The Museum of Comedy. I can't be bitter, though. The Hay Wain Reloaded was so much better than anything else I've done, and it will be a tough thing to follow.

Although collaboration with others doesn't always come naturally to me, there were a handful of new and unusual joint projects that made this year special. It's always a pleasure to work alongside energetic, brilliant and lovely people. Among them there was 'Double Act' (a short film), 'Jalapeño High' and 'A Load of Croc' (a couple of mini-series with the Weirdos) and of course the Weirdos Panto. My New Year's Resolution is to attempt more collaborations and to instigate one or two myself.

I absolutely loved the one-off gigs. For example, 'Simpsons Night', when we recreated two episodes as faithfully as possible, creating something entirely original in the process; Hallowe'en, when I put in an appearance as 'The Upside Down'; and 'Eurovision Night', when, representing Macedonia, I belted out the rousing patriotic anthem:
Stand up,
Stand up,
And help me find my house keys.
Perhaps it's my background in improv, but the one-offs are altogether my favourite gigs. They might not be the most polished or well-constructed performances, but they give the audience, and myself, that beautiful sensation of having a unique, never-to-be-repeated experience. This feeling is one that I want to share with every audience, whether I'm performing a bit for the first time or the hundredth. Another Resolution: approach more gigs as one-offs.

It seems I'm heading into 2017 with less momentum than I had at the start of 2016. But I do have a rough idea for a new show, Parsley. I don't really know what will be in it, the way I did with The Hay Wain Reloaded – certainly no actual jokes, or stories, or sketches or characters – but rather a feeling I want to evoke, and the confidence that if I pursue it relentlessly, something will emerge. I look forward to finding out what it is. The word 'comedy' seems increasingly inappropriate, though the alternative comedy scene does provide a suitable stage for my hard-to-market Low Art strangeness.

There are many, many people who have helped 2016 be so remarkable for me in my 'comedy' endeavours. Here are the names of a small number of them: Jack De'Ath & Thomas Meek, Matthew Highton, Adam Larter, Joz Norris, Ed Aczel & Gabby Best & Justyna Bomba, Alexander Bennett, Phil Lindsey & Martin Willis, Gareth Ellis & Rich Rose, Edward At Last, Penny Matthews, David McIver, Bob Slayer, John Henry Falle & John Kearns, Dan Lees & Neil Frost, Michael Julings, Christian Talbot, Conor Jatter & Luke Spillane & Tom Webster & Dan Attfield & Tom Bacon, Steve Roe, William Lee, Mark Stephenson, Beth Vyse, Lucy Pearman, Kat Bond, Cassie Atkinson, Eleanor Morton, Gareth Morinan, Lottie Bowater, Helen Duff, Marny Godden, Ben Target, Charlie Miller, Suzanna Kempner, Ali Brice, Harriet Kemsley, Katia Kvinge, Tash Goldstone, Joe Davies, Louise Reay, Matt Tedford & Jon Brittain, Phil Jarvis & Andy Barr & Mark Dean Quinn & Alwin Solanky, Alex Hardy, Conor Darrall & Jo Scott, Dave Pickering, etc. & etc. & etc. & etc. Plus a lot of people who have given me an ego boost, a warning nudge or a belly laugh.


Friday 29 July 2016

The Hay Wain Reloaded: Edinburgh Fringe 2016

I'm off to the Fringe in a few days. I'm very pleased with my new show, Michael Brunström: The Hay Wain Reloaded. It's a truism for comedians to say their latest work is the best thing they've yet done – why bother, if not? – but, from my perspective, The Hay Wain Reloaded is obviously the most ambitious show I've yet done, by a country mile, not just in terms of props, stunts and characters, but in terms of structure, themes and ideas. The reason I can claim this legitimately is that I know the show wasn't very ambitious when I first conceived of it.

When I had the idea to do a show about The Hay Wain, all I had in mind was to choose an iconic (yet non-obvious) visual icon that I could use as a hook to hang a collection of surrealist stunts – very similar to what I had done with last year's show, The Golden Age of Steam. But as I delved further into the painting and its artist, John Constable, I found more and more that resonated with me on a personal level – about my childhood, about my dad, and about creativity and career. So I was able to make a show which isn't autobiographical, but which has an authentic, emotional coherence that hopefully underpins the silly and sometimes grotesque flights of absurdist comedy.

All of this probably says less about my own ingenuity than about Constable's genius: his painting can offer inspiration even to a weirdo prop comic at the Fringe. After Edinburgh, I'll write more about what I found in The Hay Wain.

The only doubt I have is whether I can muster a performance that lives up to the show's ambition. The stakes seem higher than usual, and Edinburgh can be a hothouse. To do the show justice, I will have to put all the paraphernalia and ballyhoo of the Fringe out of my mind, and focus solely on the joy of performance itself. I am immensely grateful to have been given the opportunity to experience that joy, and to have had the support and encouragement of so many fellow performers whose work never fails to astonish and delight me.

Saturday 16 April 2016

KEN by Terry Johnson, Hampstead Theatre

Went to see Terry Johnson's KEN at the Hampstead Theatre. In such a grand environment, I half expected a watered-down collection of pleasant theatrical reminiscences and anecdotes. On principle, I don't like anecdotes. (Or jokes, for that matter.) Anecdotes (and jokes) are what we reach for when we would rather say something meaningful, but are too afraid.

There were plenty of knowing references for Tentringer enthusiasts, of course – which elicited appropriate chuckles from the cognoscenti – but the play itself was shockingly eye-opening, giving an authentic insight into what it was like to experience the early days of The Warp and the failures of the Rainbow Theatre Hitchhiker's Guide. But, more importantly, it was a play about what it was like to have Ken Campbell in your life. And the script bubbled and shone with genuine poetry.

Jeremy Stockwell embodied Ken better than I've ever seen attempted before. He picked up on microscopic mannerisms that we hadn't even noticed before, leaving us ever so slightly spooked. In the bar afterwards, Jeremy declared, 'We all have our own Ken', which is true. Mine tends not to be the nasal, opinionated practitioner that some have found, but rather the childlike, whimsical supposer. These are two sides of Ken's enantiodromia. But possibly the most astonishing moments that Stockwell and Johnson found, I thought, went beyond that simplistic dichotomy, to when Ken went quiet, impassive, with nothing to say, observing and absorbing. That, I discovered, was Ken at his most potent.

Watching KEN is inspiring, not like a shot in the arm, but like a poke in the chest. Yet again, goddamnyou, I'm forced to answer (not half-assed pretend to answer): 'What are you doing?'