Review: The Blank Slates present ‘Firing Blanks’

Patrick Maguire finds UCLU’s new improv show wanting

blank slates firing blanks garage theatre improv UCLU Comedy


The title of UCLU Comedy Club’s latest improv offering is Firing Blanks, but there were times last night when I could have done with a couple of rounds of live ammunition to the head. Mercifully, that’s a slight exaggeration.

The Garage Theatre show put on by the Blank Slates wasn’t all bad, but it’s clear that they are a group that need to make some serious changes if they are to fulfil their not inconsiderable promise.

Firing Blanks is divided into two one-hour acts, and the first was certainly the funnier. Short improv games are definitely one of this group’s strengths, showcasing their quick wit and propensity for an endearing and unpretentious silliness. It wasn’t Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, but it was often genuinely funny – everyone was reasonably sharp, and there were at least two decent lines per sketch.

Despite these spasms of belly laughter, I’d be lying if I said the first hour was anything more than middling; drifting in and out of mildly amusing and crying out for stronger performances to match the Blank Slates’ abundant enthusiasm, save for the hilarious stage presence of Azaan Akbar and Roberto Chiocchio. Theirs is a brilliant double act, and I would have happily watched them alone for an hour. The haphazard Akbar revels in his ineptitude and turns in a hysterically self-aware performance punctuated with a wry physicality, with Chiocchio’s knowing wit and assured delivery a fitting counterweight.

Tellingly, however, even these two were stifled by what is without a doubt a tired format. With a bit of creative thinking, the Blank Slates could put on a show conducive to fresh and clever material. A new approach to quickfire comedy would properly showcase the talents of the troupe, all of whom have comic potential.

The show’s second half, billed as a ‘radio play’, is, on the other hand, a good example of a nice idea and clever format let down by poor execution. Unlike the first half, this started dragging after five minutes.

Sure, it was a fun idea – the audience were solicited for the outlandish and disparate bare bones of a radio play’s plot and the four performers, aided by a pianist and sound technician (both underutilised), ran with it for what felt like a very long time. At its best, it was shrewd, dry and perceptive, and at its worst, it was floundering, sub-BBC2 and boring.

Disheartening, because had it not been for their heavy-handed and meandering approach, it could have been genuinely fantastic. Again, there were flashes of impressive talent – the excellent Cara McLean was let down by the overwrought premise, and Tim Frith did a great turn as both a sickly Tory minister and zany Scotsman. Joe Bohoswalec, on the other hand, irritatingly broke character far too often (which is remarkable, as he seemed to be playing himself anyway) and at points dragged the sketch down into the lazier echelons of student comedy.

Repeatedly he dealt with dead jokes by flogging them until they lost any meaning or relevance (as opposed to re-invigorating things with some new material), and undermined things with unnecessary attempts to take things meta. This was, ultimately at his own expense, as it prevented the development of any real sense of direction and sucked a lot of the enjoyment out of a well-performed, if too inconsistent sketch. While not entirely without merit or laughs, it was nowhere near good enough to justify taking up nearly an hour, and wasn’t entirely suited to improvisation. Like the first act, there was a distinct sense that the performers had a lot more to offer.

If you think you’d like to watch sixth formers play ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’, Firing Blanks in its current state would be an ideal substitute. Despite being entirely improvised, it’s hard to see this format delivering anything but disappointment. I can’t be as charitable as last night’s audience were, and a two star rating isn’t just because the show isn’t up to scratch – but because they clearly have the ability to do an awful lot better.

‘The Blank Slates present: Firing Blanks’ is at the UCLU Garage Theatre tonight and tomorrow.