Review: Footlights Comedy Festival

Our two reviewers both agree: Oxford bad, Durham good, Footlights better.

Arts Theatre Bulmer Comedy Dannish durham Footlights Oxford Revue Wang

Cambridge Arts Theatre, 21st February, £10/15/20.

Chloe Mashiter thinks the only surprise here was Durham’s talent.

When it comes to comedy, why do we even bother competing with Oxford? When they are so far behind, even taking ideas from ex-Footlights to fuel their sketches, what’s the point? I first saw the Oxford Revue last term at the comedy debate, where they were about as funny as The Catherine Tate Show. They’ve only had minimal improvement since then and judging by Durham’s performance last night, maybe we should invite along a different Uni next time.

Oxford started off and, credit where credit’s due, there were a few good sketches. Their tall, dark and physics-defyingly flexible standout performer was aptly energetic and unhinged as the physical theatre practitioner who doesn’t just think outside the box, but fills it with all of his ex-wife’s possessions and burns it to the ground. A septuagenarian version of Mitchell and Webb’s Sir Digby Chicken Caesar narrowly avoided being too derivative but was instead perfectly judged, the elderly man-on-a-mission shouting ‘charge!’ whilst moving at two steps an hour. A sketch with two Rah girls on gap year travels round a council estate, trying to get a hold of the local ‘charv’ dialect, completed the trio of Oxford’s actually funny sketches.

The rest were so poor they’d probably fail to make it onto a BBC 3 sitcom. A sketch featuring a man inadvertently stowing his partner’s shit away into his boss’ wife’s handbag, having removed it from the toilet, wasn’t just hindered by not being funny: it was also horrifically predictable and embarrassing to watch. A mother tended to by a ‘gardener’ was another low point, the script riddled with poor innuendos and the sketch bewilderingly ending with her son dropping his trousers, about to give his mum a good ‘ploughing’.

Durham followed, quickly demonstrating that, unlike Oxford, they knew comic timing doesn’t just apply to the content of a sketch, it applies to the length too. They built up momentum by interspersing fleshed-out scenes with small but perfectly formed jokes. One such brief sketch had a character doing an increasingly excessive and comical dancing-whilst-driving routine to syncopated music before crashing, leaving us with the sombre message that ‘jazz kills more drivers each year than any other genre of music’. Astronauts having to deal with their oxygen having been swapped for Doritos and a demonically-possessed yoga instructor might sound gratuitously wacky on paper, but the brilliance of Durham’s scripting and performances made each minute of their set hilarious.

Anyone who’s seen a Smoker recently can fill in the rest of the review themselves: we know the Footlights are good. Some of the accents in their sketches alone squeezed our more laughs than most of the Oxford Revue’s set. The Cantabs’ confidence was demonstrated in them being the only group to include stand-up, treating us to both Dannish Babar and Phil Wang’s musings on their romantic failings. So they comfortably outshine the Oxford Revue – no surprise there – but what will be interesting to see is whether Durham will in future be able to pack in just the few extra laughs needed to really give Footlights a run for their money.

Julia Carolyn Lichnova experiences similarly predictable reactions…

For such a long set, consisting of numerous sketches from three different revues, all trying with various degrees of desperation to represent their respective city’s drama scene and then inject it into your brain with snappy escapades, the entire experience was exceptionally well executed. All three teams seemed unfazed to be performing to a large audience in a ‘real’ theatre – least of all the Footlights member who stripped down to naught but a sock (or was it a weird tassel?) which covered his aforementioned body part. There was only one small technical error – spontaneous bizarre trance music – but it could almost be excused as part of the equally strange sketch it interrupted: sacrificing your lives for Doritos in outer space.

The general consensus, and one that I endorse, seems to be that the Oxford Revue’s sketches were mediocre. To focus on the positive, however, one brilliant Oxford character was the pointy and whimsical physical theatre teacher. “Are we in the Cambridge Arts Theatre? – No. We are in an enchanted forest and I am a magical faun…”  he implored in impressive leaps and bounds across the stage. A series of short sketches about an eccentric old man’s battle with his ‘nemesis’ pleasingly punctuated more odious, stretched-out performances with sure-fire senile humour. Sketches like the latter, however, treaded a fine bit of land between the seas of offense and predictability – which can also be said of Chloe’s more negative picks.

By comparison with Oxford’s wading and erratic routine, Durham’s finelypolished act positively sparkled. An immediately outstanding aspect was the well-chosen and impeccably timed sound effects and music, testimony no doubt to a well-rehearsed and confident routine. Their short interludes, often music-based, were a refreshing break from more drawn-out sketches; and while some of the comedy was hit-and-miss, the acting was often eccentric enough to seal the show. A particularly tall and imposing actor stood out in a dating sketch: when asked “Are you a Christian?” his bellowing “YES!!!!” tipped the potentially tedious and religiously contentious script into slapstick lightheartedness.

The Footlights’ revue consisted of a series of recycled but well-chosen sketches – the crème de la crème of recent Smokers and Jests. They lived up to their name: sketches flowed smoothly to a pleasant soundtrack of the audience’s contented chuckles and guffaws. More traditional scripted scenes were nicely balanced with informal numbers, and this particular set should be commended for its adventurousness: Wang’s infamous ukulele epic, Babar’s personal stand-up, Bulmer’s poetry and a glass-box interlude added a zing! factor to an otherwise sketch-based performance, and enjoyably brought unusual mediums such as mime and poetry recital to the fore of Cambridge comedy.

All things considered, as a Cambridge student familiar with the comedy scene it’s hard to judge a performance you already know parts of. This becomes especially problematic in the context of audience appeal. The audience laughed consistently throughout the three shows, adoring japes that I despised, lauding jokes I thought fell flat and hooting through my doom laden silences. If we’re going to ask if the show, as a whole, was successful – did it make people laugh? – the answer would be a unanimous, resounding yes.