Review: The Occasional Students

Despite some excellent performances ROBERT SMITH found the Occasional Students only occasionally funny.

christs Comedy Ford Garner Jenkins Liebman Occasional Students Owen Sketch Sketches

The Occasional Students, 16th-20th February, Yusuf Hamied Theatre @ Christ's College

I’m always a little wary of sketch shows. I’m not against the concept per se, I just think they have to work a lot harder to keep their comedic momentum going than a one act play or an evening of stand-up. Scene changes are necessarily going to happen frequently and the audience are thrust into a new situation every few minutes. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Occasional Students could quite keep the momentum going.

So what went wrong? The main fault lay in the writing. There’s no questioning that Thom Jenkins created humorous situations, it’s just that these initially funny ideas simply weren’t sustained by enough jokes. This was especially noticeable as many ran on for a fair amount of time. At the risk of sounding terribly old fashioned, it would also have been nice to have more punchlines, as there’s nothing worse than a sketch suddenly ending with no laughter to cover the abrupt change of scene. Repetition of sketches, something I usually enjoy, only really works if there’s a significant twist on the theme each time. When this was eventually done well, with the already very excellent advertising sketch brought back with a brilliant change of situation, I started to hope that things might warm up. In typical fashion, it soon became apparent that it was of course the final sketch of the night.

So what was good? As already hinted at there were some very good sketches, particularly the trip to a vet with a penchant for bestiality. The Mafia job interview was also very good, even if it didn’t quite know how to finish. Moving away from the script, it must be said that the acting itself was pretty first rate. Despite my less than kind words about Jenkins’ writing, his appearances on stage were excellent, particularly his opening role as Dr Johnson. Phillip Liebman gave several delightfully restrained performances and on the other end of the scale Matt Owen got some of the biggest laughs of the night with his brash American Ad Man. Tom Foxal was perhaps my favourite performer, purely on the basis of his role as the ‘new breed’ of advertising agent.

Ultimately though, the Occasional Students was only occasionally funny. It was telling that the most my plus one laughed all evening was when I stepped in front of an oncoming cyclist after the show. The performers should not be disheartened, however, and their fine performances at many points made me wish that I was enjoying it more. Jenkins has some good ideas, but perhaps needs to develop a writing partnership with someone to help him bring more humour out of his knack for creating funny situations. If you’re going to go leave it to the end of the week, as the already very good performers really hitting their stride could paper over these deficiencies.