Saturday, 26 January 2019

REVIEW: Graham Fellows: Completely Out Of Character - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Graham Fellows is a veteran of TV and comedy for over 25 years, but is hardly a household name because it is his alter-ego ‘John Shuttleworth’ who has garnered all of the fame and attention. As Shuttleworth, Graham Fellows has created a comic persona whose dated club-night musician style is rich in well-observed humour. He has cultivated a large cult following for Shuttleworth through songs that dwell upon the mundanity of life, holding up a blandly framed and smudged mirror to ourselves as we laugh in recognition.

For this tour, Fellows has stepped out from behind the masks of his characters to deliver a night of autobiographical anecdotes and more personal compositions. On stage in The Lowry’s 150 seat studio theatre was a guitar and a small wooden keyboard, which Fellows later explained was a pedal harmonium. He arrived on stage in jeans and a shirt and struck a friendly, if slightly awkward figure. Early on in proceedings the microphone was emitting a loud click of static as Fellows moved about on stage and, perhaps fearing an interface with the national grid, he was rightly distracted by it. This resulted in some awkward non-sequiturs and losing a train of thought.

Within five minutes, Fellows had mentioned the elephant in the room, Shuttleworth and like a medium channelling the spirits, he contorted into his famous character for a split second. As our host conjured his characters he looked to his left and then turned as character to reply whilst facing his right. When Shuttleworth appeared before our eyes to hold impromptu conversations with Fellows two things became painfully apparent; Firstly, Shuttleworth has stage presence, his ticks and pomp are charismatic in their own quirky way. Yes, Fellows was obviously more comfortable behind his comic creations than he was on his own. Secondly, that the audience were acutely aware of this. The relief when Shuttleworth’s fans realised that he was going to be a presence this evening was palpable.

As Fellows described his career there were some moments of interest, notably in discussing his earliest creation Jilted John and the appearances on 'Top Of The Pops' that his fleeting pop stardom brought. We delighted in singing along to ‘Gordon Is A Moron’ and were amused by the heavy namedropping, which didn’t come across as cynical because the juxtaposition between this ordinary man with stars such as Deborah Harry and Paul McCartney were not just incongruous for the audience, but to Fellows himself. Aside from a couple of notable examples, Fellows' songs were rather disappointing. It did not go unnoticed that Shuttleworth’s apparent fixation with the humdrum was an extension of Fellows’ own preoccupations, so his more serious songs were sometimes twee. They had some poignancy, but even elicited titters from an audience unsure what his intended tone was. At one point he had to stop a song and explain that it wasn’t actually funny, but was instead a serious song. It was this moment that probably summed up the night.

The second half descended into haphazard and rambling milestones from his life. Fellows mentioned depression, divorce, moving house and yet never discussed them. There was little insight and no sense of narrative or revealing personal development, just episodes. The songs continued, with varying levels of success, but because they were written and prepared, were at least more comfortable viewing. There were some highlights; notably when Fellows explained the development of his characters (with whom he conversed regularly), which mustered some much-needed laughs.

One short anecdote stood out to me as very telling indeed. In describing his most recent character Dave Tordoff, he mentioned that he had never written a scripted show to learn by heart, so when performing as Dave he had suffered a mental block and completely forgotten a routine. This sounded like a benign story, but revealed exactly what was wrong with this show. At two hours, Fellows’ unscripted show is rambling, often boring and exposes the performer as uncomfortable and just plain blagging it at times. This is made all the more galling by knowing that this show was trialled at The Edinburgh Fringe last August and it certainly has not been honed or trimmed in the meantime. Perhaps Shuttleworth can play it fast and loose because he’s been doing it for 25 years, but Fellows is in dire need of a script.

The finale of the show were two songs ‘Mark Rylance Used To Be My Lodger’ and a song which used a rather salty innuendo to uproarious laughter, but which repeated the same joke, without variation to ultimately diminish its effect. It was nice to end on some laughs and I shall sum up by paraphrasing an audience member as they left, “It was alright”.

Reviewer - Ben Hassouna-Smith
on - 25/1/19

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