Way back in 1975, the prog-rock wizard and future grumpy old man Rick Wakeman staged a show that’s widely regarded as the moment prog rock finally disappeared deep into its own posterior. That show was a live version of his album The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, on ice. Footage of it is now invariably wheeled out whenever a punk-rock documentary needs a quick visual aid to explain what punk-rock was rebelling against.
Why are we banging on about this? Well, Wakeman did become the unlikely frontman for stand-up on TV, as the host of Live At Jongleurs in 1997, and now a bunch of stand-ups are unwittingly following in his footsteps by staging their own wildly ambitious fantasy spectacular, on ice. Tony Law and Friends in the Battle for Icetopia takes over the rink at London’s Alexandra Palace on October 14th, and features a coming-together of the UK’s finest absurdist talent: possibly at speed.
In the starring role, and the man with the original plan, is the eponymous Law: hairy, Canadian and a ‘cult comedy legend’, it says here, not unreasonably. To make this distant dream a reality he’s teamed up with the stupid-but-clever collective Weirdos, who have some previous with staging big, barmy events. And so to kick off this Circuit Training double-header about Icetopia (Tone turns up in Part Two), I meet two Weirdos on a roof.
Adam Larter and Joz Norris both staged splendidly imaginative solo Edinburgh shows this August – Norris built a web around himself and popped up in Larter’s show, which did amazing things with Pringles tubes – but are now back in London. Hence we climbed to the rooftop terrace of the lovely St Luke’s Community Centre café, near Old Street, and along the way Larter showed Norris a picture of a fake moose head. All will be revealed.
Let’s start with some Weirdos backstory: Adam, you’re the sort of Rick Wakeman/Brian Eno creative driving force?
Adam: I’m founder, writer, director…
Joz: And I’m just in it a lot.
Adam: No-one thinks I’m the main person from Weirdos. That’s why I started casting myself in stuff.
Joz: Adam was like the invisible member, he wrote and directed everything, but would only pop up and play a chicken in two scenes or something. Then people like John [Kearns] started getting really successful, so Adam got cross and said ‘right I’ll play the lead in every single show now.’ This is the first one for ages where you haven’t played the lead.
Adam: Joz will always play the idiot.
Joz: I don’t mean to, it always turns out that way.
How did Weirdos start then?
A: It just started off as a crappy open mic night.
J: It was always interesting.
A: It’s either luck, or I like to think that as part of a group we help each other’s quality improve.
J: It’s nice that it’s not just a group of friends who gig together – we actually produce work as a group as well. We’re looking at what each other’s brains are doing, and it changes the nature of what you do, because you’ve been challenged a bit more by people you like.
A: Like any promoter, I was putting on people I found funny, and I don’t really like straight stand-up. I’d see Holly Burn pretty much just screaming at an audience: that tickled me.
J: Didn’t Holly set herself on fire once?
A: She’d been to a magic shop and got herself magician’s fire type thing, but she hadn’t told anyone that she was going to do it, so I genuinely thought for a good few minutes that she was just starting a fire. It had no context with what she was doing.
It’s the logical punchline for her name I suppose…
A: We always thought that she and Nick Sun should do a double act and call it Sunburn.
How did you get into these big productions?
A: As a joke someone suggested that we do a pantomime – none of us knew how to do that, but as the promoter I took on the role of directing it, and we did this live stage version of Hook.
J: We did a word-for-word transcription of it. And it was already a long film.
A: So that was a success, just by luck, but it was quite fun.
So the pantomimes led to Icetopia?
J: We did a Harry Potter thing too, that did alright, it sold quite well. We realised that if we do exactly the same jokes, but about characters that people already like, people think that’s really good.
A: It’s quite simple comedy really, really visual, childlike, we try not to swear too much, there’s never anything offensive. I don’t mind saying Weirdos is boundary-pushing, but people should never be uncomfortable watching stuff. I think you can try new things, while people still enjoy it.
J: We’ve got away from mess as well. I feel like it was quite founded on mess.
A: The other thing I do is make most of the props and art, which probably takes the most time out of anything.
J: How long did everything for your solo show take?
A: That was done gradually, whereas all the props for this are being done in one month. I was up late last night painting canvasses.
What’s the silliest prop you’ve been incredibly stressed about?
A: Probably building Stonehenge out of cardboard – it looks quite simple, but to then transport it is ridiculous. And the coffin for the Christmas show, because I just had it in my room for a long time.
Tell us about The Battle for Icetopia.
J: There’s not really a battle.
A: There’s a struggle. So Tony Law grew up in Canada, he’s really good at ice skating, and for many years he’s wanted to do Tony Law on Ice. Then he met Ben Target, who said ‘talk to Adam!’ and I said ‘yeah, we should do this.’
I think for a while Tony probably thought ‘here’s another person just being polite,’ but we met to discuss the script, Tony came up with all these characters, I turned it into a script, and said ‘let’s go and meet Alexendra Palace ice rink and book in a date.’ And it’s all happening now.
It does bring to mind that old Rick Wakeman King Arthur live show… is this prog comedy?
J: I like to think of Weirdos as a prog project, and Adam thinks it’s a punk project.
A: It’s pure do-it-yourself! Everything is done in the evenings when I get home from work.
J: [Wakeman’s old band] Yes did a thing called Cruise to the Edge, where you got on a cruise and just sailed round, and they were the onboard entertainment. Perhaps that’s the next thing, we should do a Weirdos cruise. Marillion do it as well.
How did you two meet originally?
J: I met Adam at an open mic night called the Electric Lobster in Tooting, you were the resident act and I lived up the road, and as I remember we both hated each other’s acts. He thought ‘who’s this dickhead’ and I thought ‘who’s this child?’ Then I did a show in 2012 at the Fringe and John Kearns was an old friend who’d got me into comedy at uni – he brought Adam and everyone along.
A: Correction, I refused to go. But then you came to see my show and I thought ‘no-one who comes out of choice to see my show can be bad.’ And John and Pat [Cahill] said you were funny.
J: So I got involved in Hook. I just hated the stand-up circuit, because it was full of quite unpleasant people and made you feel very lonely. But I really liked doing Hook, because you felt part of a group of people happy to do stuff that was fun and stupid.
Who did you play in that show, Joz?
J: A lost boy and a shadow. I think I started the Weirdos morph suit thing – every Weirdos production has one now. A black morph suit is still the onstage shorthand for ‘they’re invisible.’
And who are you both playing in Icetopia?
A: I’m not in it.
J: Tony Law‘s taken his favourite role as attention-grabbing lead.
A: Also, I can’t skate.
J: I play a character of Tony’s who cropped up in his regular show this year actually – he’s called Trent, a moose with one antler. A lot of the characters are nonsense creations that have come out of Tony’s head, and Adam’s now created a story for them.
How easy is it to do that exactly?
A: Tony gives me really difficult characters to work with and to make costumes for, and to make them work on ice. He’ll say ‘oh there’s this character who’s a plane.’ A plane? I have to go backwards and think ‘why would a wolf be Tony’s father?’
J: He does look a bit like a wolf.
How’s your skating, Joz?
J: The woman giving the lesson last week made it very clear that she didn’t think that I was good enough to skate in a professional production.
Before we go, can you give us the gist of the plot?
A: You try, Joz.
J: Tony Law plays himself, and he lives in a future where global warming has happened, so now the world’s covered in ice, but is also hot, because it went both ways. His dad’s a wolf, and Tony just wants to go to university, to become a great thrower. But then Stalin, who runs a printing press, turns up.
A: I just say it’s a battle of good vs evil. The good people believe in skating and a better future.
So it’s environmental and political – like An Inconvenient Truth.
J: I think that’s spot on. More of our work should be socially conscious, Adam.
A: No-one got any of the social commentary in my solo show.
J: Was there social commentary in it?
A: Massively mate! It was all straight-edge punk philosophy, about why you shouldn’t drink.
J: I prefer prog.