Big Big Big : Catching Jack

By Lisa Clark

My first Festival Show this year is a joyful jump into the fantastically weird and hilarious world created by Big Big Big, otherwise known as Ella Lawry, Madi Savage and Millie Holten.

The immersive feel to Catching Jack begins in the foyer when heavily cloaked and bearded Lantern Man appears with his lantern and clanging his bell to usher us into the Theatre. The stage is set with moody lighting, (lots of lanterns), and low level tense sounds to yell Ye Olde 1880s London at us complete with a Big impressive Ben lit up stage right.

The plot of catching Jack the Ripper is there but a more of a loose thin line to hang some kooky characters, mad ideas and jaw dropping surprises. The audience is led through London’s foggy back streets and sewers meeting detectives, Bobbies and a Rat King (Millie), but who REALLY rules London?  Director and brilliant character comedian Ben Russell clearly helped bring the sketches together into a somewhat coherent whole. It gets a little muddled about three quarters in, but the talent of the performers and fast pace keep your interest, keen to know what on Earth will happen next.

Ella, Madi and Millie all have remarkable comedic skills. Each has a unique presence and they work off each other brilliantly, without being clichéd. A slight timing issue of costume change, rather than slowing down the proceedings, managed to showcase Madi’s comedic improvisational skills. The colourful characters they create in the story were memorable, Ella’s show stopping all singing, all dancing character wowed us all. Their ideas are deliciously original and bonkers and they keep the audience on side, only involving us in amusing and unthreatening ways.

There is nothing half arsed about this production, everything has been well written, rehearsed and put together with excellent costumes, props and lighting. The soundscape was astonishingly good, providing mood, special effects, replacing scenery and solved problems such as being unable to have a live flame on stage. There were a couple of moments where it was too loud but this will be ironed out no doubt and otherwise, the tech timing was impressively spot on so early in the run.

The audience guffawed throughout, Catching Jack was a silly, surreal and very funny Theatrical production performed by three talented comedians who I last saw as part of Flat Pack in their excellent sketchier show, Space Force. I loved them in that and am further impressed yet. Big Big Big are only going to get Bigger.

If you can’t make it to Melbourne this year, why not listen to their podcast that inspired this show; “The Candyman” a satire of True Crime podcasts.

Catching Jack is on at The Improv Conspiracy Theatre until April 4

Ben Russell – The Pilot

By Elyce Phillips Ben Russell

A plane takes off from the tarmac, filled with crew and passengers – each with a story to tell. This is the set-up for Ben Russell’s The Pilot, a hilarious character comedy that is the perfect vehicle to show off Russell’s talents.

The Pilot has a cast of many, all played by Russell. Onboard the plane, we meet a dejected co-pilot, an uppity stewardess, a Chicago ex-cop and more. Each character Russell slips into is distinct and well-rounded. The accents are at times unplaceable, but the voices are clear and it’s easy to follow the story as Russell switches from thread to thread. There are thoroughly enjoyable moments with every character. Russell doesn’t let the pace drop for a second, getting big laughs even when he fumbles or a bit of audience participation doesn’t quite go to plan.

The plot of The Pilot is a secondary concern. The most enjoyable parts involve Russell going off on an odd tangent, often involving a lengthy section of mime work. A moment in which Russell silently portrays the backstory of his stewardess is an absolute highlight. The show has a great script, but it’s loose enough for Russell to play with the audience and muck around with sound cues. It looks like Russell is have a great time on stage and that enthusiasm and sense of fun is infectious. The Pilot feels like more than a one-man show, such are the energy levels in the room.

The Pilot is a show that is jam-packed with nonsense. Russell provides some of the best character comedy in the festival and it’s extraordinary to watch. It’s ambitious, ridiculous and very, very funny.

Ben Russell – The Pilot is on at Melbourne Town Hall Lunch Room until April 23

Ben Russell & Xavier Michelides – Nö Shöw

By Elyce Phillips Xavier M & Ben Russell pic

Ben Russell and Xavier Michelides stage every comedian’s nightmare in Nö Shöw – a show where it is always opening night and no-one has shown up to watch. It’s an absurd narrative comedy that twists into some weird places, but brings the laughs the whole way through.

Nö Shöw begins in a straightforwardly amusing way, with a ridiculous song about boners, but soon transforms into something a whole lot more interesting. Russell and Michelides break down their own performances from within the show, frequently stepping aside to discuss how it is going. Different tangents show where the performers picked up their skills, and what they might be doing if they’d chosen a path other than comedy. Russell endeavours to hide the lack of audience from Michelides throughout, leading to some bizarre crowd work.

Russell and Michelides are talented performers and it’s a delight to see them on stage together. Both have an aptitude for playing characters and that is brought to the fore, particularly when Russell plays various members of the non-existent audience. The duo make for a good combination, Michelides’ caricature of innocent ignorance butting up against Russell’s brash, almost Vaudevillian demeanour. It takes a lot of skill to pull off a show that’s this high-concept and introspective without it disappearing up itself, and Russell and Michelides have absolutely proven themselves to be up to the task. Nö Shöw is consistently funny, undercutting the cleverness with goofy visual gags and a dash of crassness.

If you’re up for a bit of late-night weirdness, Nö Shöw is something different from two Golden Gibbo-nominated comedians and well worth checking out.

Ben Russell & Xavier Michelides – Nö Shöw is on at the Imperial Hotel

Ben Russell : The Tokyo Hotel

By Colin FlahertyTokyo Hotel

Ben Russell is the genial yet troubled tour guide of our voyeuristic visit to The Tokyo Hotel, a faded beauty of a place with lots of run down and broken occupants. He takes us to various parts of the hotel where we meet these strange people and learn about their past and their slide into the fringes of humanity. We meet people such as resident pianist Carlos with his inelegant anecdotes, games designer Martin with his many conspiracy theories and even bump into Caligula in the elevator where he tells us of his latest debauched activities.

This show is akin to a late night fever dream with its many hilariously strange yet inspired ideas featuring a cast of wonderfully eccentric beings. The way that his character segments are constructed is a joy to behold. Russell takes a delightfully silly concept, that from anyone else would get a single laugh, and stretches it to ridiculous extremes, sometimes almost to breaking point. Even though he does the over the top repetition routine beautifully, it’s the other times where he keeps piling on more and more hilarious ideas that impresses and takes us further down the rabbit hole of this strange world.

Russell’s character work is brilliant, using very little in the way of props and clever musical cues to bring these bizarre souls to life. Some characters require plenty of comical ranting and exaggerated mugging to get their jokes across while others spout their nonsensical monologues with a straight face. He is also able to expertly employ some subtly in the quieter moments to give emotional colour to the performance. Dominating the stage is a full sized door that threatens to unhinge his performance on occasion but he handles these mishaps with a deft touch of slapstick that keeps us entertained until he is back on script. His time spent at Second City in Chicago was certainly time well spent.

Despite what you may read on Trip Advisor, I highly recommend a visit to The Tokyo Hotel. You are sure to enjoy your stay!

The Tokyo Hotel is on at The Imperial Hotel until April 19

5 Good Reasons to See Shakesprovisation

1. Much Ado About Something
Shakesprovisation suits those of you who love the Bard, or those of you who resent him because you had to study Hamlet in high school. Using only your suggestions, the players will create a Shakespearean play for you on the spot (with hilarious results).

2. Romeos and Juliets
This show features some of Australia’s finest improvisers- your favourite members of The Big HooHaa, Impromptunes, The Improv Comspiracy, and Fresh Blood’s Written it Down including Matt Saraceni, Ben Russell, Sophie Kneebone, Daniel Pavatich, Tegan Mulvany, Wyatt Nixon-Lloyd, Luke Ryan, Natalie Holmwood, Roland Lewis, Sarah Reuben, Cameron Neill, Sarah Reuben, Jimmy James Eaton, and Brianna Williams.

3. All’s Well That Ended Well
The latest Perth ex-pat offering, this show is new to Victoria after enjoying a SOLD OUT season at Perth Fringe 2013. Come and enjoy what literally tens of Perth audience members could not!

4. Tight-Ass Adronicus
Can’t afford to see the latest professional Shakespearean production? Wish you could see Hugo Weaving carve it up in Macbeth, but don’t have the funds? This is a cheap alternative (with hilarious results!)

5. Midspring Night’s Dream
Shakesprovisation is on at the Portland Hotel in Melbourne’s CBD at 6pm. Pop in after work, enjoy a pint of James Squire, see the show and still be able to get home in time to see The Bachelor. #teamsam

For information and tickets see the Fringe Website: