Let The Footlights stamp on their own critics

In response to the defence of The Footlights, TOMMY SHANE argues for the importance of criticism over blanket praise.

ADC chortle chuckles Comedy criticism critics Footlights giggles golden age harry michell Ken Cheng lol my tights have a hole in right at the toe Phil Wang Smoker tommy shane

What I’m about to do feels a little vindictive and perverse. Vindictive for attacking a much-loved institution at the heart of our university, and perverse for following a defence with an attack, when Patrick Brooks seems to have popularly fought the Footlights’ corner. Isn’t everyone already being a bit mean by not holding the Footlights’ hands and sheltering them from criticism? No, you big bunch of wusses.

Brooks does The Footlights a disservice with his article, as their only defence can and should be their comedy. Taking to The Tab to try to convince you a comedy troupe is ‘genuinely funny’ embarrassingly suggests the exact opposite. I agree with Brooks that generic anti-Oxbridge criticism is lazy, boring, and ultimately irrelevant. But the fact is that The Footlights have been struggling in the past couple of years, and as critics, it is our job to point that out.

I really, really hate it when third years start talking about things at Cambridge from before most people arrived, flaunting their knowledge of a nostalgic and rose-tinted yesteryear. But I do want to put this into the little context that I can. The Footlights when I arrived in 2011 was led by Phil Wang, the Chortle Student Comedy Award winner of 2010, basically crowning him the best that there is in student comedy. His name is bandied about a lot round here, and deservedly so. But behind him was a wealth and depth of talent. Pierre Novellie was 2012 Chortle Award finalist, and performed the excellent hour-long stand-up show Nonsense, as well as single-handedly establishing the Corpus Smoker. Behind him was Ahir Shah, who has recently returned with a brilliant stand-up show, the staggeringly funny George Potts, the hilariously lanky Lowell Belfield, and many, many more that it is superfluous to mention.

I appreciate that these names won’t mean a whole lot to most readers, and I do get that this is pretty annoying. But to put it into perspective, the 2011-12 Footlights also had within this cohort Harry Michell, the guy that most of you will recognise as having been the funniest man in Cambridge last year. And yet he barely featured. Rather than having to sideline a talent like Harry Michell because of such a large number of comedians, this year The Footlights had to pull in Rosa Robson for the Panto, who actually graduated and left Cambridge last year. It seems inarguable to me that if there was a sufficiently talented group in Cambridge they wouldn’t have to do this, irrespective of Robson’s evident talent.

The point isn’t to be mean about the current members of The Footlights, but to point out that we are not currently experiencing a golden age of The Footlights like we’ve seen in the past, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so. There is, however, brilliant comedy being produced in Cambridge right now. It’s just not coming from The Footlights. Tom Fraser’s sketch show Spleen, for example, far exceeded anything The Footlights have produced in recent times. Its wit, originality and confidence made it far better than ‘Canada’, the 2013 Footlights tour show. And equally Three White Guys presented two brilliant comics, Ken Cheng and Bhargav Narayanan, neither of whom are members of The Footlights. And yet these productions will struggle to sell-out, unlike the effortless ticket sales produced by the mere mention of The Footlights’ name. The Footlights should always be under pressure to justify this different treatment.

The pantomime sells out every year

But it’s difficult to make these points given the climate of fear around criticising The Footlights. I should know – I gave The Snow Queen a bad review, and it was definitely a scary process. Being critical of anyone in the tightly-knit Cambridge theatre scene is difficult, but this is especially so for such a well-established and seemingly invincible institution. (It must be said that I did make things slightly worse by attending the Panto’s after-party – but honestly this really was only so that I could wingman a friend. And, incidentally, this was when I first met Jessica O’Driscoll Breen, so naturally I have no regrets.)

Brooks was right to single out that terrible and now infamous ‘mixed bag’ review of the Smoker – I wrote it, and it is an example of lazy, tangled and incompetent writing. The Tab commenters are ruthless in attacking poor writing in The Tab – and so they should be. When writing is bad, criticism should be severe. And the same goes for the theatre. If we want The Footlights’ name to mean something, we must have high standards for their productions. Whether or not you agree that there is a current lull in the quality of Footlights, attitudes like Brooks’, wherein critics should be kind and comforting to The Footlights, is poisonous to the maintenance of their reputation. If we want The Footlights to be good, we must tell them when they’re bad.

Any student journalism that wants to be taken seriously must encourage reviewers to have high standards for The Footlights, because criticising them is daunting. And equally, any Footlight that wants to be taken seriously should accept and use the criticism they receive. The rest is all bollocks.