ADC Theatre, Tues 30th April, 11pm
As a newcomer to the Footlights Smokers, it was hard to know what to expect. People I asked said things like ‘hit and miss’, ‘moments of genius’ – I went in as a blank canvas, with no guarantees except the punchline I’d already heard being rehearsed below the fire escape. As it happens, no guarantees was about the best description I could have given the evening.
There was no guarantee, for example, about which unassuming sketch would build to a man wandering in wearing shoes on his hands, a pink construction hat on his head and a crazed look on his face. There was no guarantee as to what was going through the minds and coming out of the mouths of any Alex MacKeith or Harry Michell character (either for the audience, or seemingly, for the actors). There was no guarantee that the next act would not give a fresh new perspective on everyone’s favourite boy wizard.
Ben Pope’s opening stand-up set certainly implied that great things were to come. His confident routine was the ideal opener, making great use of voices and a fantastically original rant about the Corpus Clock. Cambridge-specific observations are hard to get right within ‘the bubble’ (as proved later by Zoe Tomalin: her pregnancy routine was hilarious, but her beginning lines were less well received, I suspect because too many audience members knew people all too happy to wear Hieronymus Bosch jumpers without the pretext of stand-up comedy). It also takes exceptional skill to make a whole theatre laugh at the concept of a game that most of them have just admitted to never having heard of.
After a rather wordy sketch about tupperware, nothing was better suited than Freddie ‘that wasn’t a raisin’ Crossley. The lightening-quick Oliver Taylor imbued the audience with a sense of excitement that anything could happen; a bingo-calling sketch, developed masterfully from a character monologue, controlled the audience excellently without the participants even realizing it. Even the two sets about Harry Potter managed to be entirely different, with one a blend of intelligence, whimsy and black humour, and the other in fluent Spanish. Comedy in a foreign language is a huge ask, but every second of this was gold. The fast pace within the sketches, too, was brilliant. The ‘incoherent cowboy’ developed the joke to the perfect peak – a transition which is all too often overlooked in musical comedy – and the two Harry Michell and Alex MacKeith sketches changed register and premise in extremes in a matter of moments, and without fail did so expertly.
I am no clearer as to what to expect from the next Footlights Smoker. But I can at least guarantee that I will be there, and I will spend a great deal of it laughing riotously.