Fringe Review: Speechless
A sketch show to shout about
At Underbelly Cowgate at 14:40 for the full Fringe run, Speechless is forward thinking, surprising and hilarious – bringing a fresh burst of energy to the often stale feeling sketch comedy format.
Described as an "experimental multimedia sketch show" by creator Comrie Saville-Ferguson, the show takes a simple idea and runs with it. In the world of Speechless, there has been a clampdown on subversive activity laws have been passed banning all forms of comic speech – a set-up nicely executed with a VT segment before the show.
However, one plucky band of comics is getting around those rules by providing laughs "using anything other than their voices." Instead of the spoken word we are treated to clowning, mime, voiceovers and powerpoint. Therefore the premise succeeds by removing us from the current obsession with the voice – the age of the podcast and the poetry slam – and in doing so opens up whole new avenues for sketches.
The cast – Comrie Saville-Ferguson; Dan Allum-Grazelle; Anna Wright; Joe Sefton and Jessica Murdoch are all brilliant – and need to be in a situation where sketches sink or swim depending on a particular facial expression or subtle hand gesture. The bulk of the funny moments seem to fall on the shoulders of Saville-Ferguson and Allum-Grazelle, but the whole cast stress what a genuinely collaborative process this was and huge credit needs to go to Wright, Sefton and Murdoch for their constant acting prowesses to set up the other two for the punchlines.
The sketches themselves range from the merely silly to the genuinely bizarre – if the phrase "we can always send in the tractor" doesn't make you laugh for weeks after you've probably gone to the wrong show. Possibly my pick of the bunch was a sketch that was literally just acting out the words of a french song. Its not sidesplitting, there's no real punchline but it just stands up as an example of the way that the clear sense of humour and direction of the Speechless cast and writing team shines through.
Sketch shows generally suffer from a scattergun, unfocused approach – but Speechless' tight theme enables the particular sense of humour of the writing team to shine through. There is one particular sketch with Dan Allum-Grazelle wearing a swimming hat that I won't spoil for you, but I will say that its the kind of transcendent, choking-with-laughter set piece that we'd still be talking about today were it done by any past Footlights luminaries.
Speechless is by no means perfect – as the show goes on the sketches start to feel a little samey with an over-reliance on voiceovers, and the cast walk in front of the projector too much, which often means the audience completely miss the set up of some sketches. There is a certain problem keeping energy in the room in a format that by default allows for no audience interaction. Saville-Ferguson himself admits to as much, saying: "We are keen on editing, as there is not much space for not having laughs due to the potentially scary silence." This kind of candour and complete lack of ego is typical of the Speechless crew, who are dedicated to putting on a decent show above any pride or possessiveness.
The ending brings the show's dystopian premise back into full focus and provides a surprisingly touching coda. You leave the show feeling as if what you've witnessed was not just an hour long or showcase of twenty-or-so sketches, but an idea. An idea that is the new benchmark for what Cambridge comedy can be, and a shining star to guide future efforts into being a bit more unconventional.
Big recommend for anyone, whether inside the Camdram bubble or not.