You see a white box, panels screwed together, made of plasterboard. It doesn’t have a roof. There are chairs and a ladder.
A cast of six. No music, no dialogue. Coats, flowers, trapdoors, hammers, hacksaws, and a lot of dust and flying debris. Reckless Sleepers, a company formed thirty years ago, have been developing this show for four years, playing with the boundaries of stagecraft and audience expectations of what theatre might be.
Negative Space is many things. Slapstick and vaudevillian. Dangerous and dynamic. Witty yet dark. Pointless yet complex. The cast display an impressive level of agility, timing and trust in each other: scaling walls, crawling below and through small spaces, dodging the hammer blows and kicks which decimate the set.
Shows like this have many stories (and let’s face it, falling over and a bit of cartoon violence is always funny), but audiences must find their own meaning in what they see.
Negative Space reminds me of the absurd mimes of Samuel Beckett, the thrill of the circus, and the danger of the building site. With a hint of a love affair, a bit of drama, and quite a few bruised bodies, this certainly delivers something very different to a usual night out.
To be exact, 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the fortieth anniversary of The Life of Brian, the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Graham Chapman, and the eightieth anniversary of the birth of John Cleese.
The Flying Circus ran for 45 episodes on the BBC: 13 episodes in each of series 1-3, and 6 episodes in series 4 following the departure of Cleese. These were supplemented by two episodes for the German market: one made in German and subtitled in English, and one made in English.
Python also made films together. In 1971 their successful foray into the American market started with a compilation of sketches from the Circus, re-recorded for film and entitled And Now For Something Completely Different.
In 1974, back with Cleese, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was released, utilising the story of King Arthur’s quest. In 1979 there was considerable controversy at the release of The Life of Brian, which opened with the Wise Men visiting the wrong stable to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Finally, in 1983, in a loosely-connected series of sketches, the team attempted to explain The Meaning of Life. Including expensive musical numbers, and teetering on the edge of bad taste throughout, this film remains their most polarising work.
My first experience of the Pythons came in 1987, when the BBC repeated series 2 of the Flying Circus. Not only were there men in dresses with screechy voices, wild and unusual animated links, and silly walks, but also songs, allusions to art and politics and much more. It wasn’t exactly laugh out loud hilarous, but it was something different.
Then we were shown The Life of Brian on VHS in an RE class at school, and I got my own copies of that and Holy Grail shortly afterwards, with And Now For Something … showing up on TV. The books The Big Red Bok and the Papperbok followed (still to this day in the wraparound poster that mentions masturbation).
The Pythons were very naughty boys. Educated, but juvenile. Of the establishment as Oxbridge graduates (except the American one), but kicking against convention. Taboos removed, they couldn’t care less. And that was most of the fun. They even made records like I’m So Worried (“about the baggage retrieval system they’ve got at Heathrow”).
They appeared live at the Hollywood Bowl. They had great roles for women in their work, including Carol Cleveland, Connie Booth, Rita Webb, and others. They taught us about history, philosophy, the space race, TV programme planners, literature, blancmanges, law, religion and the police.
At their twentieth anniversary in 1989, there was a tinge of sadness as Graham Chapman (my favourite of the six) died the day before, aged just 48. He’d taken part, briefly, in the BBC”s compilation of Circus sketches called Parrot Sketch Not Included. He remains a much-missed part of the jigsaw, and rightly received his own cheer at the One Down, Five To Go run of live shows at the O2 Arena in 2014.
Several books later, including Michael Palin’s perceptive diaries Monty Python at Work, and John Cleese’s memoir of his early years, So Anyway, we find ourselves at the half-century point. Now, as you may be aware, there were projects pre-Python like Incomplete History of Britain, HowtoIrritatePeople, AtLastthe1948Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set – the last two about to enjoy a brand new DVD release from BFI – so all the team were working on TV prior to 1969, but it was the Flying Circus that brought them together.
These days John Cleese (after three divorces still touring to pay alimony), Michael Palin (well-travelled, voice of The Clangers, recently knighted), Eric Idle (king of Spamalot, the stage musical of the Holy Grail, and Not the Messiah, the oratorio based on Brian), and Terry Gilliam (maverick film director) show little sign of slowly down in their twilight years.
Terry Jones (my second favourite Python, cheeky, funny, and Welsh) is sadly stricken with dementia, and out of public circulation. Sad though this is, I wish him well for the future and hope he can continue to enjoy his legacy.
Look out for the Python season at the BFI, the Network Blu Ray release of the remastered Flying Circus, film screenings and more, and do pick up the Radio Times special celebratory magazine, Monty Python at 50.
Enjoy again the dead parrot, cheese shop, Spanish inquisition, singing policemen, lumberjacks, the new gas cooker, the dirty fork, the pepperpots, lemon curry, the bishop, the Piranha brothers, the Hell’s Grannies, edible art, the Bruces, Reg Pither, the Wood Party, the vocational guidance and marriage guidance counsellors, Dim of the Yard, Teddy Salad, sleazy clubs, parts of the body, the other Cole Porter, the Oscar Wilde skit, the Amazing Kargol and Janet, Wuthering Heights in Semaphore, the man with three buttocks, Two Sheds Jackson, Dennis Moore, molluscs and much, much more.
Happy anniversary, you bad boys. All photos courtesy of Monty Python’s official website.
I asked Tilly Price (actor and producer) and Joshua Silverlock (director) to tell me a bit more about the company and the show.
The title of your piece, How to Mend the World (with a student play), offers many possibilities. What might an audience coming along in London or Edinburgh expect?
JS – It’s a very thorough exploration of what each individual can do to help resolve the various crises currently affecting the world we live in. I think often people think that because they are just one person in a population of 7 billion they can’t make a difference but actually if you are a privileged (preferably white) theatre student from Notting Hill you can put on an experimental play that will have a huge impact. That’s just one option. We explore them all.
TP – I should probably say, Josh is not going to take this seriously. Sorry. It’s a riotous character comedy mixing satire, slapstick, and surrealism to take a jab at some of the more pretentious theatre makers within our ranks.
You’ve chosen Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as your inspiration. Are you planning to tease out some themes from that in your 45 minute show, or keep things light?
JS – There’s a scene in this play in which a cucumber is snapped and grated in place of a penis. Take from that what you will.
TP – The characters in How to Mend the World (with a student play) do discuss The Crucible and it’s ‘themes’ but it becomes clear that the majority have misunderstood the text completely (or not even read it). Indirectly, the play itself exposes certain themes and ideas from The Crucible as part of the narrative but this too is kept light.
Tell me about your cast and creatives, and how Drunken Brainstorm came together. What might we expect from you in the future?
JS – We met on Hampstead Heath late at night. No more questions on this please.
TP – Our cast/creatives are made up of graduates from a few drama schools. We have four actors (myself, Liam Hurley, Francis Nunnery and Oliver Tritton-Wheeler). While some of us attended parts of our education together (three of us met at the Arts Ed sixth form and two on the RADA Foundation), we met as a group in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which we played the mechanicals. We really enjoyed working with each other and decided shortly after that our relationship couldn’t stop with ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’.
You’re at the Old Red Lion in Islington for two nights, then on to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. What are you most looking forward to from your chosen venues, and how will the spaces inspire your performance and production?
JS – I’m most looking forward to meeting the Old Red Lion himself, I’ve been a fan since a very young age so will be amazing to be working together at last!
TP- All our venues have a different layout which has been great for ensuring our production is very adaptable (this is good for the future too). I think the different audiences we will have in London and up in Edinburgh will be really interesting and with a comedy I love the variety in audience reactions. The different audiences keep the play fresh and I think our venues are diverse which can only add to this. This is our first time at the Edinburgh Fringe as a company and I think the play we have created is extremely suited to that audience so it’s an exciting opportunity.
This production utilised crowdfunding, which is an exciting way for theatre fans to support emerging artists and companies. How can audiences support Drunken Brainstorm in the future?
JS – I need a new bike. So …
TP – The crowdfunding was amazing for us as it has demonstrated the support we have for the company. We were touched by how many people wanted to contribute. The best way to support us now is to come and watch our performances in Edinburgh (at theSpace on the Mile from 12-24 August) or our possible future London/touring shows. Keep an eye out for these on our social media pages. Twitter – Instagram – Facebook.
My thanks to Tilly and Josh for their time – best wishes to the company for their Edinburgh run!
I started this blog in 2011 to report back on shows I have attended, mainly theatre but also some concerts and sporting events.
It has also become a vehicle for some film, television (current and archive), book reviews, and some more personal pieces.
On a professional level I worked for twenty-five years as a librarian, and also am a published writer – academic articles, poetry, popular culture – and spent five years editing a journal for a major publisher. If you would like to know more, see my LinkedIn profile.
As of 2019 writing and editing has become my main job, and I am very keen to engage with productions, outlets, and arts organisations to expand my coverage and my reviews.
With a new show entitled ‘With Great Powerpoint Comes Great Responsibility Point’, Dave Gorman brings a hilarious new show on tour with lots of insight, more than a few surprises, a lot of Powerpoint slides, and a killer joke about a giraffe.
It’s a long show – we excited the hall at 10.45pm – and one Nick Doody supports in a kind of subversive John Shuttleworth-style. Not to give any secrets or segments of the show away, I can say there is a great pre-show routine which pays off after the interval, and a domestic with the often-quoted Mrs Gorman which ends up involving some old friends you’ll recognise from ‘Modern Life is Goodish‘ in a convoluted way.
You may get old favourites. You may get new perspectives. You may never look at one particular word with a silent letter in it again. You’ll be talking about the giraffe joke for weeks. A high point of Gorman’s appeal.
Ever since ‘Are You Dave Gorman‘ debuted on TV in 2001, Gorman’s modus operandi has been a laptop, a checked shirt, a clicker, and a lot of cheek. His fast-moving and quirky mind makes connections between the most mundane items and utilises social media platforms to develop routines in bizarre directions. Not for him the basic fruits of observational comedy beloved of so many stand-ups.
A superior evening which will make you cry with laughter and keep you on your toes.
Originally published on my LiveJournal blog 10th December 2011.
After a long absence from the UK, accomplished magicians Penn & Teller have started making welcome returns to these shores, and the three nights of ‘Conversations’ last week in the O2’s baby venue followed on from their (admittedly hit and miss) TV talent spotting show ‘Fool Us’ and their successful show at the Hammersmith Apollo last year.
On the first night which we attended Mr Jillette and Mr Teller were in conversation with their good friend Jonathan Ross, while performing a small selection of their greatest tricks (Teller’s needle and thread illusion, the hand stab, the cups and balls, the polyester illusion, and a new piece involving an audience member being tricked by a couple of metal hoops). Although we have heard the story before of the Latin teacher and the teenage street juggler deciding to work together – now in their thirty-seventh year as performers, and the longest running in terms of stage time in the USA – it is always fun to hear the background of an artist and here the duo didn’t disappoint.
A lengthy Q&A at the end allowed some discussion of the topics covered in Showtime’s long-running series ‘Bulls**t” (only shown briefly here in the UK. on the DMAX channel I believe) in which the duo debunk many areas of knowledge such as religion, politics, mediums, and much more. It was clear from PJ’s answer to a question about mediums how much he resents their exploitation of the grieving bereaved (and also how much he loves and respects his late parents, who passed around ten years ago). Also his love for his family, EZ and children Mox and Z who came to him late in life. Mr Teller is rather less forthcoming about his personal views, but he was fascinating on the subject of silent performing and the work of Derren Brown and mesmerics.
All this makes me want to reach for the handful of VHS recordings I have of their 1990s series ‘The Unpleasant World of Penn & Teller’ or to watch their flawed but funny film ‘Penn & Teller Get Killed’ from 1989.
Come back soon guys.
(Incidentally the indigO2 is a weird, weird venue. Something like a nightclub and although it was OK for this show, I would hate to watch something more conventional here. Our last experience of this venue was for Bryn Terfel and it was just wrong on every level to see an opera star there).