BELLA BARTOCK, our arts correspondent, has been out on the town again, and found herself rolling in the aisles at the Ashcroft Theatre. But she picked herself up and dusted herself off just in time for comedian Mark Steel to make his entrance
If you were not at the Ashcroft Theatre last night, you missed a treat.
Mark Steel is so marvellously subtly subversive at every turn. His full two-hour version of his In Town show, performed here in his own, adopted home town, was just as good as the various versions in five series broadcast on Radio 4, as Steel has toured the country, revelling in the quirks and oddities of the nation and its people.
Steel’s well-established schtick is Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island meets Jackie Mason. The righteous anger – “I get angry because I’m right!” – from his early, agitprop days is still there whenever he tip-toes into his old political territory. But this tends to a more kindly, affectionate and fond view of ourselves, more a gentle tickle than a poke in the ribs.
How does he get two hours’ worth of material for every town? It is basically the same show, with about 30 minutes of researched local material inserted in a couple of key places. The Walsall hippo. Exeter’s third Viking invasion. The little bookshop display. They all go wherever Steel does.
And everyone is always reassured that no where can be quite as bland, dull or boring as Swanley.
There was a sense last night that maybe, just maybe, Steel feels that Croydon runs Swanley close. Very close. “It’s hard to be a beautiful town when you’ve got a dual carriageway going through the middle of it.”
Steel’s career has always been about more than stand-up. Here we saw an actor playing a dozen different roles. It is a minor marvel that he is somehow able to deliver a Birmingham accent that was distinguishable from one from Walsall. Though it’s fair to say his Polish accent was indistinguishable from his Bulgarian. But then as Steel pointed out, the “invasion” predicted by the likes of the Daily Wail never actually happened, so maybe he hasn’t heard too many Bulgarians recently.
Steel has a particularly nasty, Uriah Heep-type character that he slipped into when he wanted to portray some of the nastier elements of 2014 Britain, with what he calls a Ryanair attitude to public services: “Fire brigade? What do I want with a fire brigade? I’m not on fire.”
The Tricky Dicky Ottaway story of the Croydon South MP calling out the police when some of his constituents, including an 81-year-old lady, had the audacity to turn up for one of his constituency surgeries got an airing. It didn’t take much comedy writing by Steel to get a laugh. Even in the MP’s absence, Ottaway assumed the role of pantomime villain, his mere mention attracting theatrical hisses and boos from the 750-strong audience. Steve Reed OBE can only dream of such local notoriety.
Some of Steel’s local references, such as to plunging property prices in flooded Kenley, were bang up to the minute, his satirist’s regret for Ian Holloway’s departure as Palace manager brilliantly delivered, his Exocet-esque destruction of the “zoo” with albino wallabies in Whitgift School right on target.
But, surprisingly, he did get a couple of things wrong. That Steel seemed to rely so heavily on the Croydon Sadvertiser for his information may have had something to do with it. In its preview, the Sadvertiser’s stated, “Mark Steel has made his name pointing out the silly and the sublime surrounding audiences in their home town”, overlooking the first 25 years of the comedian’s career in which he made his name through stand-up, as a satirical columnist in several newspapers and with appearances on panel shows as diverse as Have I Got News For You and Question Time. But what do you expect from a paper with its editorial offices in Redhill, its sports desk based in Tunbridge Wells and its sub-editors based in Essex?
It was nonetheless odd that Steel did not know that John Whitgift had lived in Croydon when Archbishop of Canterbury (establishing the almhouses and a school for the poor – how things have changed), and the comedian twice made reference to the town’s ill-considered bid for city status, expressing his surprise at the underwhelming response from his audience. The reaction probably had as much to do with the fact that the city bid was a deserved flop two years ago, and it hasn’t been a live issue in Croydon since.
The £1 billion Hammersfield redevelopment of the town barely got a mention. There’s probably little comedy in a corporate land-grab. “If there’s anything that’s going to transform Croydon, it’s probably not another shopping centre.” If a comedian can see that, then why can’t the local MP? Oh, wait a minute…
There was subversion to the last. As Steel left the stage after his encore (“I won’t keep you too long. The curfew starts soon”), the theatre’s sound system started playing some dimly remembered music. It was the Pogues’ version, but Steel might have chosen the song because it was written by Ewan MacColl, father of Croydon pop singer Kirsty.
Or maybe it was just because it is called Dirty Old Town.
Coming to Croydon
- Croydon Arts Network meeting, Feb 15
- Chinese New Year children’s event, Upper Norwood Library, Feb 18
- This War! St Gertrude’s Theatre group, Feb 19-22
- Welsh myths children’s event, Upper Norwood Library, Feb 20
- Norwood Society talk, Upper Norwood Library, Feb 20
- Mr Pooter comes to Croydon, Feb 20-22
- Warm and Well event, Upper Norwood Library, Feb 22
- Stop the Incinerator fund-raiser, Feb 24
- Fairtrade Film night, Antenna Cafe, Haynes Lane, Feb 27
- Fairtrade event, Upper Norwood Library, Mar 1
- Coulsdon and Purley Debating Society, Mar 3
- Patchwork and quilting workshop, Upper Norwood Library, Mar 3
- Fairtrade stall at Food Market, Haynes Lane, Mar 8
- Upper Norwood Library Book Club, Mar 15
- Norwood Society talk, Upper Norwood Library, Mar 20
- Croydon Half-marathon, Mar 30
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