Comedy Fest

Fri 24th February 2012

reviews

Will Clothier

at 02:56 on 25th Feb 2012

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Comedy Fest is one of the biggest comedy events of the Durham theatre calendar, with three of the nation’s top student comedic groups sharing the bill. Before anything else, I think that the nature of sketch comedy needs to be commented on; the medium is one in which, notoriously, ‘hits’ inevitably come alongside ‘misses’. The most renowned sketch shows in history also contain lacklustre material as well as gold. Monty Python, for example. In addition, the medium is perhaps more subjective for the audience than most, which I’m also going to recognize. But I digress. The expectations for Comedy Fest were high – but the impressive trio did not disappoint.

The show was opened by the Oxford Revue, who displayed comedic variety and great versatility. There were some particularly exuberant comic performances, and I couldn’t help being reminded of an early Hugh Laurie by one of the cast, who used exaggerated physicality to great effect. The group also utilized video sketches, which helped break up the contrived nature of sketch comedy, as well as a guitar-accompanied performance of the song ‘Middle Class Oxford Blues’, which was especially well received by the Durham audience. They got round the awkwardness of scene transition, as well as the difficulties of the final pay-off by directly referencing and playing with these notions, turning the staged nature of the medium into an asset. The revue often relied upon expletives and ‘easy’, well-trodden targets (such as the Catholic Church and AIDS), but I don’t hold the equally easy opinion that this is always a bad thing – because the way it is done needs to be taken into account. And in this case, these comic techniques were generally carried out with a clever innovativeness. Having said this, there were probably a few too many punchlines of this kind – the repetition of the same technique of the reliance upon blunt swearing caused the effect to wane slightly, rather than the technique itself. Personally, I felt that some of the premises could have been delineated more clearly, especially given the critical importance of clarity for short, punchy, sketch comedy, though this only got in the way of a small number of the gags.

The laughs came most thickly, though, with the Cambridge Footlights. Only two performers from the group were present, but they didn’t need support, conducting a run of perfectly formed sketches that built expertly towards satisfying pay-offs. The performances were less physicality exaggerated than those of the Oxford Revue, and they didn’t depend on accents, rather on consistent strength of material. Before he took to the stage, I was not aware that Phil Wang would be performing, but instantly recognized him having become a fan after following the Chortle Student Comedy Awards, which he won in 2010. The sketches were tight and densely packed with laughs, but the highlight of the night came when Wang, and his equally talented co-performer Pierre Novellie, subsequently performed short stand-up sets that displayed their adeptness at walking the tightrope of observational comedy and their ability to form the vital connection with the audience. Novellie probably had the most difficult feeling in the room to play with of the night, in having to follow Wang’s masterful and subtly likeable stand-up. He managed to do this with a similarly engaging and deft set, which resonated with the audience, who responded with those fluent waves of laughter that indicate when a comedian is able to repeatedly hit the right marks before the audience catches up.

The show was rounded off in fine style by the Durham Revue. The troupe complimented each other very well as an ensemble; the individual attributes of each performer were clearly recognized and employed fully. At a fundamental level, the physical differences of the cast were played against each other well and deployed in a variety of different sketches. Compared to the Footlights, the sketches were somewhat looser, taking a slightly more circuitous route to the laughs, though the laughs still came in abundance. The endings to the sketches – perhaps the key area of difficulty – varied in strength and occasionally the final pay-off seemed a bit forced. However, this didn’t greatly overshadow the sketches, as most had provided a number of laughs by this point anyway. Overall, the group exhibited an impressive dynamic with strong ideas, which will perhaps become more refined over time, before their planned appearance at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

All three groups showed why they are held with such prestige in the world of student humour, maneuvering in an accomplished manner within the medium of sketch comedy, which is at turns one of the easiest comedic mediums to get right, and one of the easiest to get wrong.

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Julia Chapman

at 13:52 on 26th Feb 2012

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Comedy Fest has always been the ultimate comedy event of the year; a battle of wits between our fine academic institution and the two chose not to welcome us into their hallowed halls. In past years, it has been nice to feel superior to Oxbridge students for one fleeting moment, but this year no such feeling was allowed as the Cambridge Footlights finally surpassed the Durham Revue.

Comedy Fest’s threefold structure means that only one star rating can be attributed to three separate performances, and with all due respect to the Oxford Revue, they were decidedly overshadowed by the other contenders.

The Durham Revue has always been held high in my estimation. Year after year I’ve been a loyal devotee, but this year it seemed as though they had lost some of their razor-sharp wit and perfectly crafted sketches. This is surprising because all of the new additions to the group were wonderful, and the two veteran members seemed to come into their own in their newfound seniority. But for some reason, many of the sketches seemed to culminate in one actor saying ‘F**k off’ or ‘Get out’, which diffused the effect of each sketch. Durham’s sketches have always been succinct, but this year they seemed longer than usual, something the Oxford Revue has long been guilty of.

However, highlights of the Durham Revue’s set included the opening sketch, in which the Revue capitalised on the astonishing height of one of their new members in a sketch about Snow White and the Eight Companions (he could hardly be referred to as a dwarf), David Knowles’ RADA audition, which saw him performing the parts of a guard from one of Shakespeare’s histories and the kettle from Pinter's The Homecoming, and Mary Poppins’ rendition of ‘A spoon and a lighter helps the heroin go down’.

As for the Oxford Revue, all their sketches were cleverly written but poorly executed. The Revue put doubt in my mind that Oxford is teaching its students anything more than how to speak with a perfect Brazilian accent. But never has brevity more been the soul of wit, as Oxford’s sketches inevitably fell short to those of Cambridge and Durham because they weren't short. What was quite good about Oxford’s performance was the inclusion of short films (emphasis on ‘short’, Oxford), particularly the Goldilocks sketch which made brilliant use of the medium of film, hiding from view certain aspects of the scene.

I did, however, have great admiration for the singer of ‘Middle Class Oxford Blues’, which was a highlight of the Oxford set. As the singer lamented his dog Baudelaire being dead, he asked us ‘How will everyone know about all the poncy books I’ve read?’ Middle-class Durham loved it. The standout performer was undoubtedly Imogen West-Knights, whose solo performance in the sediment sketch was the best part of Oxford’s set.

Although I’m not sure when the Cambridge Footlights became a duo, Phil Wang and Pierre Novellie were more than enough to contend with Oxford and Durham. If they had brought any other members of the Footlights it might have just been embarrassing for the other groups. Arguably the funniest sketch of the entire evening was Cambridge’s Google sketch, in which the omniscient Google comments on the character’s search history, picking up on the idiosyncrasies of the search engine. Both of Cambridge’s performers treated us to interludes of stand-up comedy, which were brilliant. Although the race card may be played too many times in stand-up, Phil Wang’s self-mockery was fantastic (‘Apparently if you squint at me…it’s racist'). Similarly, Pierre Novellie’s observational comedy about airplane seats (‘Sleeping like this isn’t comfortable’, he leans back five inches, ‘but THIS’) had us in stitches.

I will always love the Durham Revue, but this year it was the Footlights who finally lived up to their reputation as the preeminent student comedians in the country.

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Comments

Rachel Racioppo; 28th Feb 2012; 15:59:16

Cambridge was hilarious! I will never look at airplane seating (or Mary Poppins) quite the same way.

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