I headed off to the Corpus Playroom with ambivalent feelings, unsure whether to brace myself for an evening of conventional satire with a pinch of insular self-deprecation or to brace for an invigorating spectacle of young talents. The result was, unsurprisingly, an mix of both.
Ben Pope did not disappoint as a pithy compere, smoothing the transitions between different acts with his skittish presence. I was initially a tad skeptical of his lackadaisical I’m-only-half-aware-of-why-I’m –here aura, but reserve soon gave way to admiration in particular for his efficient use of brief intervals to adumbrate a wonderfully boisterous sense of humour. Some of his anecdotes did feel slightly abstract and rushed; others however, including a grotesque postulate of the use of falcons as the ultimate flirting technique, produced a symphony of guffaw.
If you take the responsiveness of viewers to be the best criterion of a show’s success, the Corpus Smoker created a true furore in the audience. In fact, laughs and chuckles began the moment the show began, which left me with an uneasy suspicion that the collective amusement was a manifestation of pre-exam hysteria and the call was for bread and circuses rather than actual laurels for the comedians.
This feeling resurged a few more times during the show, especially when I was brutally brought back from the frontiers of drowsiness by a burst of nervous laugher after debutante Ellen Robertson’s reference to the Corpus Playroom as ‘the Masturbatory’. But the unsavoury soon transformed into a parody of the Vagina Monologues with a melodious conclusion (“My jeans feel tight. But also empowered”), and the show went on, with momentary dissonances cleared by true masterpieces such as Archie Henderson-Cleland’s house tour with Hugh Jackman, or his nasal alter ego Felicity Bywater.
My guilty pleasure was Tom Fraser’s slightly uneven performance intertwined with “It’s my first gig”s, which, despite not catapulting him to stardom, won the audience over with auto-ironic self-confidence.
Whether it’s a slightly repetitive petition to David Cameron about Broken Britain, an allusion to Leonardo di Caprio’s illustrious collection of awards, or a spot-on anecdote about the nature of human interactions in Sainsbury’s before exams, the Corpus Smoker feels fresh, current and spontaneous.
The reason for my incurable fascination with comedy stand-ups is probably the subtle interplay between the comedian and the audience. The former initiates the interaction; the latter retaliates by employing different shades of laughter and silence as a barometer of its own amusement. Back and forth, the dialogue continues and the best comedians are usually the ones who master the art of artistic tight-rope walking, reacting to every murmur, and striking the precarious balance between being funny and narcissistic and distasteful.
The Corpus Smoker didn’t quite rise up the challenge, but I somehow feel the success of the show lies precisely in its nonchalance and endearingly scrutinised imperfections. Just like Monty Python and your ritual cuppa tea.