Review: Milton Jones, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, March 2011

If anyone can generate belly laughs with an overhead projector, Milton Jones can. The surreal one-liners come thick and fast, but he paces himself by letting his ‘granddad’ and supporting comic James Acaster warm us up a bit. Although the gags hark back to the days where comics told one-liners and used props, this is certainly not a predictable routine. He cleverly links tiny aspects of the show together at unexpected moments and shows that a ‘Sshhh’ to a heckler goes a long way. This is simple gag telling and word play at its best, and told in Milton’s gentle, mad-eyed way. The 3 best jokes for me were about Manchester United, REM and cyclists. I won’t ruin it for you, go and hear them for yourselves.

Review: Count Arthur Strong’s Command Performance, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, March 2011

Like a mad uncle at an ill-advised family reunion, Count Arthur Strong guarantees to astound and amuse in equal amounts. Steve Delaney’s character is a delight. He is also a nincompoop. Wonderfully deranged, oblivious to the chaos in his wake, and choking on self-importance, he is a joy to watch. It’s worth taking a moment to watch the audience during his performance; you won’t be alone in shaking your head in disbelief at how Doncaster’s finest aging thespian manoeuvres himself into corners during monologues and arguments with his long-suffering friends. Some of the material may sound familiar from his Radio 4 series, but the visual dimension is well honed and gives the Command Performance a fantastic, old-fashioned variety-show feel. Every moment of this performance is perfectly timed. There is not a wasted word or stage direction from the Count and the wonderful Malcolm, his unfortunate lackey.

This is slightly surreal and bonkers at times, but a real testimony to the years of work that Steve Delaney has put in to polishing this rough diamond. I recently read that the Count may be gracing our screens. About time too.

Review: Mark Thomas, Extreme Rambling: Walking the Wall, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, Feb 2011

The Israeli-Palestine conflict is not the most obvious choice of theme for a comedy tour, but this is no ordinary tour and Mark Thomas is no ordinary comedian. Aided with a gigantic map of Israel and the West Bank as his backdrop, the evening begins with Mark explaining how he funded his latest work – a walk along the 750 km wall that divides Israel and Palestine – with a thank you to the Metropolitan Police. In 2010, Mark was awarded £1200 compensation from the police for an illegal stop and search they had undertaken in 2007, so he put the money towards funding the walk. ‘I asked them if it was alright to use their logo’ he says with a cheeky smile, ‘and they didn’t reply, so I thought, yeah, why not, I’m just showing my appreciation.’ Although his energy and writing are superior, what ties the show together are Mark’s impressions of his companions on the walk. The characters are brought to life with great comic effect, but it is the stories that stay with you long after you leave the theatre; stories told with poignancy and precision timing. Mark is a gifted storyteller, and this is easily his best tour to date. The story of the wall, his experiences both side of it, and the people that made the extreme ramble possible are all stories worth telling. Ultimately, he is a performer, and understands that this is a complex issue that cannot be played just for laughs – that simply isn’t his style. The stories of humiliation faced by the people he encounters, are often followed with a loaded silence, which he then punctures with a quick line offering some light relief.

The show is a testimony of courage too. In one town, Palestinian children as young as six are regularly stoned by Israeli settlers as they make their way to school. On the day Mark watches them make their journey, they gambol over the hill unscathed; they’ve made it. ‘This is the best it gets for them,’ he says. The silence is deafening, and a few sniffs can be heard amongst the audience.

Mark’s reputation as a campaigner has gone from strength to strength, helped by his tenacious attitude and passion for justice, and this tour sees him on form once more. The show comes highly recommended for those of you who want to look beyond the media images of suicide bombers and army tanks. Entertaining, thoughtful and very moving.

Review: Mark Steel, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, January 2011

First night of Mark Steel’s new UK tour - Mark Steel’s In Town - so ‘it might be great or it might be complete bollocks.’ It was a good start. I reviewed Mark’s previous tour over three years ago when he was last in Huddersfield. The crowd was smaller then, but tonight was almost sold out, and quite rightly. Mark’s presence on Radio 4 panel shows, such as The News Quiz, has allowed him to test his material, as has his column in The Independent and his blog (click on How I Spent An Afternoon – priceless) which has gone from strength to strength and shows off his love for history and politics. His writing, both on the page and on tour, is definitely sharper, but what stands out this time is his extraordinary talent for regional and country accents – Geordie, Northern Irish, London, Cornish, Brummie, Welsh and Scottish, each one matched with precisely the right combination of swear words that make the accents sing beautifully. He is quite the performer; articulate, smiley and potty-mouthed. Four stars, if anyone’s asking.