Reviewed: Comedyfest

Lizzie O’Connor enjoys an entertaining evening of comedy

Cambridge Footlights Durham Revue Gala Theatre Oxford Revue

The Oxford Revue

 

Having arrived at the Gala theatre late and missing the first couple of minutes (terrible, I know), I decided to give Oxford the benefit of the doubt for the weakness of their first sketch, wondering if its absurdity (not the good kind) and slightly awkward execution were merely because I’d caught it only halfway through.

 

Unfortunately, this was not the case – whilst I commend their imaginative use of song and film, their ideas just didn’t really do it for me. The performers didn’t commit to the sketches or fully inhabit their characters, which made the whole thing seem like a series of pre-empted improv games rather than carefully crafted scenes.

 

The main problem was that the sketches just felt a bit random, lacking in central idea or narrative: where Durham and Cambridge were clever and surprising, Oxford were merely silly, with jokes having a tendency to rely on ‘Loud Comedy Voices’ and ‘Zany Characters’. Their Breakfast TV sketch, for instance, was basically a couple of mad-cap presenters presenting a mad-cap show, and that was all it was. Similarly, the Middle Class Oxford Blues interlude was an absolutely brilliant idea let down by a disappointing fruition, relying too much on tired, obvious digs when it could have been incredibly refreshing and clever.

Having said that, I was extremely impressed at how Oxford fared this year in comparison to what I have seen this revue do previously. This year’s group are an absolute revelation; whilst the sketch ideas were a little shaky, there was a good smattering of funny moments and a great deal of potential.

 

Their final sketch, an audition with an actor who misunderstands everything he is asked to do, was one of my favourites of the entire evening. Nick Davies and Imogen West-Nights bounced off one another with lovely energy – the former pitching his quirky, Hugh Laurie-esque actor at the perfect note and the latter showcasing a natural aptitude for being a perfect comic foil. So, whilst the Oxford Revue could do with a lot of polishing, they are certainly on the right track, and I look forward to seeing what they do in the future with a few more ideas and bit more practice.

**

The Cambridge Footlights

Luckily for an audience whose attention was wavering more than a little by this point, the ‘bridge’ third of the evening offered sketches that were astutely observed, shrewdly written and performed with hilarious sincerity. This is going to rather a short review, in fact, as I really have no criticisms: they were simply just very, very funny.

The opening sketch of a man being lost in Google was immediately more arresting, and both performers must be praised for having possibly the most flawless comic timing I have ever seen on-stage. The ideas and situations were nothing especially new – dodgy internet histories, frustrating technology and not reading the ‘Terms and Conditions’ – but were made fresh and exciting through vibrant and subtle performances.

 

It was a strong start to an impressive set, which elevated its bizarre and comical situations into something which took a side-long glance at the ironies and absurdities of life. Cambridge distinguished its offering from that of its rivals by mingling stand-up sets with the sketches, which was a lovely touch. Phil Wang’s quirky, self-deprecating humour and Pierre Novellie’s unique observations were a joy to watch.

Despite the undeniable talent of Novellie and Wang, I was disappointed that Cambridge had sent their seasoned regulars rather than the new members to the Footlights, as for me the whole point of Comedyfest is for the three new groups to perform. This is, however, a small criticism, and one that was easily made up for by the astounding quality of the material performed.

****

The Durham Revue
 

Our own Revue had a huge pair of shoes to fill after Cambridge left the stage to rapturous applause, but I am delighted to write that their whimsical humour often matched the incredible standard set by the Footlights. Almost every sketch was cleverly written and adroitly performed; sketches about Homer, war poets and penguins respectively were highlights of the evening. Even the less original ideas, such as those based on RADA auditions or a less than saintly Mary Poppins, were elevated by the sheer skill of the solo performers.

 

It was lovely to see how the Revue have improved since their Christmas show; characterisation (especially from Elgan Alderman and David Knowles) was bold and convincing, and the entire troupe just seemed more confident and at ease with the material. The natural comic ability and effortless physical comedy of Jack Harris also stood out for me: his brief stint as a ballet dancer in Swan Lake elicited some of the biggest laughs of the night.

 

What the Durham Revue should be especially commended on is their commitment to allowing the quirks and strengths of each individual performer to shine: the combination of dry wit and deadpan delivery from certain members with the endearing geekiness of others creates an ensemble whose energy is captivating and effervescent.

For all their moments of brilliance, however, Durham suffered occasionally from sloppiness; lines were interrupted or stumbled over, and one superhero sketch seemed to lose the plot completely halfway through. I appreciate that it was the first time most of these sketches were being performed, and often the mistakes only stood out because the rest was so polished, but it was a shame that the show was tarnished by such simple blunders.

 

Similarly, the revue seemed to struggle to fill the hour-long running time (as opposed to Oxbridge’s half-hour sets), and some of their sketches had an unfortunate tendency to drag, earning them a few polite titters from an audience who had previously been in stitches.

I would say, therefore, that the Durham Revue oscillated between moments of pure brilliance and unfortunate lethargy. The sheer amount of new material from Durham was striking, and the technical side of the performance was, as always, completely flawless. When they worked, they easily (and impressively) matched any student, or indeed professional, sketch comedy I have seen, and it was a shame that performing for an hour meant that a few weaker sketches had to be included. In the end however, the positives vastly outweighed the negatives in the Revue's show and I left the Gala feeling proud of Durham's own comedy troupe.

****