Secret Policeman's Ball 2006

Note: This review is from 2006

Review by Steve Bennett

Quite an event, a charity spectacular for Amnesty International, using a banner title dating from 1976 when the likes of Peter Cook and John Cleese were at the helm, roping in Pythons and Beyond the Fringers to blow together the sketches.

The Royal Albert Hall is like a centrifuge of an auditorium, with people plastered all round the walls and across the floor of the arena, tier upon tier of them. What it achieves in volume of audience is undercut by the impossibility of intimacy. Enormous screens picked up what was happening on the stage at the organ end of auditorium, a wide space for the sketches, and a promenade stage for stand-up jutting into the arena. It was strange to see that the hugely magnified images of the performers felt richer and more vivid than seeing the actual people, tiny, drained of colour by TV lights and vulnerable looking.

The back announcer kept a dignified hand on the tiller for the evening, being wryly amusing and not over excitable introducing the musicians, the animation video breaks and the acts, with a decent script. The animations fulfilled the ‘message’ function of the evening, satirising Guantanamo Bay, domestic violence, censorship and the arms trade including a splendid shopping channel parody flogging AK-47s. The opening set from the Zutons provided a much need jolt of adrenalin and energy into a rather quiet, respectful crowd.

Dylan Moran opened the batting for the stand-ups, with a swift and engaging set including stuff about America being the bad flatmate of the world, what men and women want, the inability to shake of our stereotypical vision of Germans still being heirs of Hitler.

There followed a sketch, two members of the American military at Guantanamo Bay detaining a pair British Asian tourists protesting they’re not getting the holiday as advertised in the brochure. A warm round of applause greeted Shobna Gulati (from Coronation Street) as one of the internees, mainly because nobody had first recognised Chevy Chase in a military cap and uniform – and also maybe because nobody has seen an old Saturday Night Live since God was a boy. A comedy legend, but like so many, known more by reputation than appearance.

Roy and Mary Loaf, a country and western parody with a miserably funny ballad on electrocution was well presented by Jessica Stevenson and Julia Davis unrecognisable in a grey fright wig and whiskers. Cut to Andrew Maxwell, bringing his natural joie de vivre to the occasion and acknowledging it to be the ‘biggest gig of my life’ and boldly trying some audience participation.

The first sight of a proper, homegrown household name came with Graham Norton, Ronnie Ancona and Jon Culshaw presenting a sketch history of the charity gala, an opportunity to showcase the vocal impression talents with ‘Davina McCall’ reporting a Big Brother style eviction from Buckingham Palace. The audience thoroughly enjoyed the voices of Audrey Hepburn, who may now be better know by Ronnie Ancona’s impersonation than for herself, her films don’t come up that often on the box, Ruby Wax, Jennifer Saunders (which got a special ‘ooh’ of acknowledgement), Ozzie and Sharon Osborne, Lorraine Kelly, George Bush and Ricky Gervais.

Russell Brand was considerably less irritating than expected, reading from and commenting on stories in The Sun, particularly successfully on readers’ responses to a news item on Ian Huntley. Damn it, he was quite funny. Closing the first half, The Mighty Boosh brought the biggest squeal from the audience so far as they were announced, with Noel Fielding in a mirrorball catsuit and Julian Barratt giving Russell Brand some competition in the bad hair stakes. A sound-assisted sword fight, a massive custard pie – which didn’t get thrown, and five giant bunnies invading the stage lifted the room at the close of the first half, with the show already over-running by 40 minutes before the interval.

Kicking off the second half with The Magic Numbers and Martha Wainwright sang I Shall Be Released as a gentle reminder of what the evening was all about, before Al Murray took the stage as the Pub Landlord, with his mobile bar. Treating the big gig just like any other, he got some of the biggest and best belly laughs of the evening, reprising his love of ‘great British names’ disgust for Europe and the French and a real sense of spontaneity, which was hampered by some pantomime nonsense with a giant Euro rolling on stage behind him, which allowed a small stage invasion by a panto horse and some dwarves, to no obvious comic effect.

A short sketch by the principal cast members of Green Wing was ever so slightly embarrassing, but the audience clearly loved to see someone off the telly; the applause as they started was considerable. Omid Djalili was then togged up in dictator’s brocade and brass and saddled with a comic monologue, dictating his diary, a ‘day in the life of a dictator’. It wasn’t that funny, but Omid could make the phone book charming and he wrung as much as possible from rather unpromising material.

A real breath of fresh air blew through the room with Sarah Silverman, a New York comic I’ve only seen briefly in The Aristrocrats. Her delicate, college educated, nice Jewish girl persona contrast beautifully with the un-PC, sick, selfish and dark material. Best bit so far, even if some faces took on a smacked arse aspect on hearing about seven-year-old lesbians and exhuming a dead granny to look for traces of semen. Just as the audience was flagging, a musical number with David Armand lipsynching to Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn, and signing it, somewhat literally, was topped by the woman herself joining him and sending herself up along the way.

This paved the way for the Amnesty Players to present an Agatha Christie murder mystery, Cluedo style, in order to crowbar a few more famous faces on to the stage. Richard E Grant played it pleasingly straight-faced as the Detective. By this stage nobody cared less that the script was utterly lame, it was just fun to see Julian Rhind Tutt suffering a melodramatic suicide by candlestick, Jo Brand as a pastry cook and Richard E Grant indulge the audience with a quote from Withnail and I along the lines of ‘We want the finest wines known to humanity …’.

Eddie Izzard as the big attraction at the end got away with murder impersonating flies, bees, giraffes and engaging with the idea of ‘Intelligent Design’ as the new cover story for Creationism. After the expected homage to the work of Amnesty International from Jeremy Irons in complete luvvie-mode in his Chinese worker’s top, which felt like the end of the show, there was a re-working of Land of Hope And Glory sung by the entire cast, wherein the prospect of Britain going down the pan, cocking up the Olympics and being saddled with ringtones and Jimmy Carr made Guantanamo Bay an appealing alternative, a strangely distasteful and off-message bit of irony for the end of the evening.

Overall an enjoyable show, tending to the ponderously long. The most successful comedy was definitely from the people who still put in the hard yards working live comedy 52 weeks a year, with the cobbled together sketches needing much audience indulgence. But a charity gig is much like the infants’ Nativity play, successful in its own terms and not deserving of too much harsh scrutiny.

Reviewed by: Julia Chamberlain
October 14, 2006

Review date: 1 Jan 2006
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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