“I was just admiring the look of absolute despair behind you”. Patrick Wilson (assistant director) grins as we chat in the crowded downstairs of a Caffé Nero. Humour can be found in daily life, he explains, even in the everyday tragedy of a waitress spilling some coffee a few tables away. This is the basic premise behind his upcoming sketch show, “Look Alive!”; taking a step back and laughing at just how extraordinary the ordinary can actually be.
Centred around the idea of an ‘earth exhibit’ in a museum, the show depicts an outside group trying to recreate what they’ve observed from afar. Patrick explains how this is the root of the name: “What we thought ‘Look Alive!’ really encapsulates is this idea of the outside looking in, trying to memorialise the absurdities of everyday life. Sketch comedy is about detaching yourself from the real, and you’ll find something funny”. But the show isn’t just laughing at the mundane: “I’m talking things like ITV’s the Cube, I’m talking what is it like to be a child actor growing up, I’m talking how Jesus (the person, not the college) would do in the Olympics; things that aren’t necessarily everyday, but they’re reference points that we all understand.”
The name is also meant to signal the energy of the show. “With a two hour sketch show there’s always the fear that there’s going to be a lull, especially with only five performers; there’s a lot of pressure on them to keep up the high energy, high comedy, for two hours.” But from the very beginning the cast make a special effort to keep things lively. The show opens with a “genuinely brilliant” dance sequence, succeeding in the difficult task of combining comedy and choreography, backed by a “glorious and terrifying” soundtrack: “it’s an overview of human history told through dance, song, and little sketches, and it’s wild. Right from the start its look alive, high energy, kick off high and never let that drop, for two hours!” From the energy Patrick himself exuded just talking about the sequence, I have no doubt that actual performance will make the audience feel very much alive.
Although he has a history of directing theatre, Patrick points out that sketch comedy is a whole different animal. With a play, there’s a given script, given roles, and a given order, but with sketch comedy the process is much more experimental and adaptive. “Even when you’re rehearsing you’re still tweaking, because the writers and the performers never turn off, they’re always thinking about how they can make it better; it’s brilliant but it’s a constant re-jiggling the brain for a director. You’re continually thinking about how the sketch is going to change, and how does my approach to directing have to change.” From refinement to complete structural overhauls, directing a sketch show is a process of constant adaptation, and with an international tour the show is constantly evolving. Sketch to sketch, performance to performance, “Look Alive!” promises variety.
I ask Patrick what makes a good sketch. “It’s difficult to speak broadly. Our five comedians are all very different, and they’ve all shown their unique ways of approaching joke-making and sketch-making; there isn’t just one way of doing it.” But what is always key, to Patrick, is efficiency. “It’s about having as many punchlines as you can, while still conveying what you need to convey in the sketch. So if a line isn’t going to make someone laugh, it should be setting up another joke, or moving a sketch forward; you need to make sure you’re getting as many moments of laughter in as possible.” He uses an analogy: “It’s kind of like a piece of music. You need to kind of make sure that everything hits the right beats, and nothing’s jarring. In the same way that something out of key in a song makes you notice it, in a sketch if there’s something that doesn’t quite fit, or hits a different note, or comes in a bit too quick or a bit too late, then you notice it as an audience member.”
Comedy, of course, has a wider significance for Cambridge. With the evolution of Footlights, for many people Cambridge is synonymous with a tradition of sketch comedy, and this show is a fantastic example of the art being very much still alive in Cambridge. But while this tradition can be a source of inspiration, it also comes with many expectations, expectations which Patrick was clear to separate the show from. “People shouldn’t come expecting another style. You’re not going to see the comic style of David Mitchell on stage; it’s not Mel and Sue. This is our style, this is what we, as a group, really like to make. We’re not trying to copy the past, we’re trying to create something new.” This is a show which pushes the boundaries of sketch comedy, drawing on “musical comedy, monologues, character work, all stuff people have honed through other aspects of Cambridge theatre, be it musicals, panto, or stand-up.” So don’t expect anything too conventional, or anything you might have seen before; in fact, it’s probably best not to come ‘expecting’ anything other than a good time.
For Patrick, the ultimate aim of the show is a humble one. “All we’ve ever wanted for the show is to make people laugh. To give everyone the chance to have a good time, and think ‘oh, that was pretty good!” This is evidenced in his double role as education officer, running comedy workshops where his primary concern is “encouraging people to realise that comedy is something anyone can do… it’s all about having some fun”. Often in the busy world of Cambridge student life, people forget to take a breather for a second and just “have a laugh”. So, in Patrick’s own words, if you want to “have a laugh” and think “that was pretty good” — or even great — then “Look Alive!” promises to provide some much needed end-of-term entertainment.
Tickets for “Look Alive!” at the ADC (Tues 11th- Sat 22nd June 2019) are available here