London Storytelling Festival 2011 Closing Gala

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

Storytelling can sometimes be seen as comedy’s fey, bookish older brother, brooding alone in the corner as his more popular, charismatic sibling gets all the attention for his ribald tales in the centre of the room. It’s all vacuous showboating, Storytelling mutters, while quietly wishing it was him in the spotlight.

The London Storytelling Festival is the latest of several attempts to make the art more relevant, even if the closing night gala wasn’t helped by a wordy preamble from hosts Sarah Bennetto and Deborah Francis-White about how it’s ‘the oldest artform’, ‘the way we communicate’ and how ‘made me understand who I was, my place in the world and my very existence’.

Thankfully, once the show got busy with the ‘Once upon a times…’ such worthy pretentiousness was largely jettisoned, and the stories were allowed to shine on their own merits.

Opening act Martin Dockery certainly showed how to spin even the most common occurrence into a gripping yarn – a trick the best stand-ups display. This vibrant New Yorker told of a fight with his long-term girlfriend amid the majesty of a Cambodian temple. Delivered with verve and told with wit and insight, he is so engaging and evocative he makes the audience believe they are sharing the sunrise – and the argument – with him.

From the experienced to the novice, with journalist Will Hodgkinson choosing the Leicester Square Theatre for his first try at live storytelling. He’s normally a rock journalist, but here he mulled the idea of tattoos, telling us a factual story about the symbolism of tattoos among the Russian prison population that didn’t always make for easy listening. The delivery occasionally needed a bit of polish, but this was an assured offering on a tough subject.

Phil Kay’s been doing storytelling in his stand-up since before it was recognised as a sub-genre of the current scene. From the profundity of Hodgkinson’s tale, troubadour Kay brought us back to the apparently trivial, regaling us with a tale of hitchhiking across Scotland to buy a car. It’s Kay’s knack for exaggerating minor observations into whole philosophies that makes this relatively minor errand so gripping, and he left us on a high.

For her own story, Francis-White – the comedian who also produced this festival – revealed that she was brought up a Jehovah’s Witness. Thankfully, this whole event wasn’t a ploy for her to sell us copies of the Watchtower, as she’s now reformed, but as a youngster she used to knock on strangers’ doors spreading the word. And should you question the wisdom of sending a teenage girl to do that, your fears will be realised with Francis-White’s yarn. Yet although there’s a menace to the tale , and she tells it with a lightness of touch – while the subject holds an intrinsic fascination because it’s so different to common experiences.

Singer-songwriter Judith Owen was in more clichéd territory when speaking of Los Angeles, where she now lives, being fake and full of desperate would-be stars. She brought out her husband, Simpsons actor Harry Shearer, to accompany her on bass guitar for the ensuing song – although ironically enough for someone known for his voice talents, he wasn’t allowed to speak. At least not yet. Owen has a fine jazz voice, but unimaginative lyrics, which is surely key in a storytelling night. In car-dependent Southern California, it’s not often you find ‘LA’ and ‘pedestrian’ in the same sentence, but it’s probably apt here.

Sarah Bennetto, the festival’s artistic director and curator of her own regular Storytellers’ Club, opening the second half with a yarn that made attending an Arcade Fire gig sond almost as magical and adventurous as a trip to Narnia. Though a comedian, the anecdote wasn’t entertaining rather than funny, but it was warmly told.

Next up was Mark Thomas, who was nothing short of astounding. After a couple of jokey reminiscences about the early days of alternative cabaret, he started telling us about his dad – a full-on rough, but hard-grafting working-class Methodist, Thatcherite builder from South London – and the difficult relationship he has with him. This has been a fertile ground for comics of late, most notably Russell Kane, but it’s never been covered as expertly as this. This powerful story was packed full of emotion, taking the audience on an incredible ride through the decades and, more significantly, the contradictory, complex feelings he had for this brusque character.

Always surprising as it deftly nipped between the moving and the funnys this was a ride that left the audience drained in the best possible way, having come through an amazing tale. Absolutely superlative stuff.

The story ended with a moral about joys money can’t buy, so it was rather unfortunate that Owen was reintroduced with the words: ‘And after the show she will be autographing CDs – if you buy them, of course.’ That Simpsons pay settlement must have hit the Shearer household harder than reported. Again, her contribution, setting up a song about women waiting ashore for their sea-faring men amid dreadful storms, was platitudinous (‘inside all of us is something that means the worst possible things can be turned around’) and the track itself soporific.

To headline, hubby Shearer returned, but despite his fame was, unfortunately, one of the weaker links in the line-up, with stories that were low on drama – and strong endings. Being taken to a Tijuana strip club was rather flat, and the story of submitting a lightweight lifestyle piece to Newsweek magazine in his youth only to find the introduction had been twisted to suit the publication’s agenda will come as no surprise in the nation that brought us the Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Sun, News Of The World, the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Sport….

But that Mark Thomas, he was fantastic.

Review date: 12 Oct 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Leicester Square Theatre

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