Boothby Graffoe, Old Red Lion, London
Wednesday 05 January 2005
I wonder if naming your stage persona after a small Lincolnshire market town has been something of a curse for James Rogers, alias Boothby Graffoe. Despite his admirable work-rate on the circuit - and in particular in Edinburgh, where since 2000 he has had a show running every year, and sometimes two - this imposing clown has not quite put himself on the map. Certainly, he has not yet earned city status.
Nevertheless, Graffoe enters this year fresh from a number of high-profile ventures in 2004. In the spring, he took part in the British and Irish comedy invasion of New York, along with Eddie Izzard and Dylan Moran, and in the autumn, he appeared as a contestant on Channel 4's Kings of Comedy. Though he did not win, his dramatic, alcohol-fuelled departure from the contest prompted glowing plaudits from his fellow contestants, including the old-timers Stan Boardman and Mick Miller, and the newcomer Ava Vidal.
The Old Red Lion may not afford the kudos of a West End run but it is a suitably cosy venue for Graffoe's cute and clever comedy. Something of a cat-lover (there is a cat motif on the wall behind him and one on his posters), Graffoe often embarks on conversations with his feline friends and, in this performance, there's also an appearance from a Welsh sheep shunned by the flock because he can talk. Not all is cuddly in his comedy menagerie, as "Kittens in a Bag" - a song about his father drowning his pets - proved. Likewise, another song, "Baseball-playing Spider", shows that Graffoe, like the cartoonist Gary Larson, can illustrate the surreal and sinister side of an imaginary animal kingdom.
There's no question that Graffoe has bite; indeed, we are left with the ditty "Dead in the Woods", about Dr David Kelly's "murder", as a stark reminder of his edge. Meanwhile, Graffoe's face, dexterous and loopy as Tommy Cooper's or Spike Milligan's, sometimes betrays an edginess. One minute, he is beaming to explain how the Australian accent was born of the sun; the next, he looks anxious and morose.
At times, the proceedings lack focus: the animal conversations tail off; a yarn about badgers, foxes and mice wearing household implements seems rather indulgent. But as a jack of most trades - musical comedy, surrealism, improvisation and meat-and-bread one-liners - there is always something round the corner.
The presence of three 10-year-old children on the front row at this show provides some bright and breezy moments. Mishearing one who says that she got an art easel for Christmas, Graffoe scoots off into a world where the art weasel helps children with their paintings. It's joyous stuff, and when it turns out that the children have pets with dubious names made for comedy, all hell is let loose in the animal house.
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