Review: Footlights Smoker

Davina Moss 2 May 2012

Footlights Smoker

1st May, 11pm, ADC Theatre

“It’s alternative comedy,” one of last night’s acts joked. “It’s not meant to be funny.” The trouble with gag like this is they rely on the night being generally humorous, and unfortunately much of yesterday’s Smoker just wasn’t.

By very nature, Footlights Smokers are mixed affairs, and almost all of them end of receiving three or four star reviews, held off the extremes by the odd soaring high or crushing low, but yesterday’s seemed to edge a little towards the lower half of the spectrum. For the inaugural Smoker of exam term there was a definite sense of unease in some of the performers – a darker edge, for example, to Ahir Shah’s exemplary stand-up set than usually seen. The audience, too, were in a strange mood; a significant proportion of drunk and rambunctious punters who seemed more interested in their own hilarious non-heckles than in the hard work the performers had clearly put into their material, and by ten minutes in or so there was a definite sense of sympathy from much of the room for what they had to put up with. Yet it was hard not to feel that working difficult crowds is part of the comedian’s skill and several acts seemed so angry at the effrontery that it alienated the rest of us, suggesting that as a single, homogenous audience block we were all to blame. Shah, I would mention again, was definitely the most skilful at this, his biggest laugh of the night garnered from a quip back to the audience which definitely got ups on his side.

Pierre Novellie was on good form as usual, although his gags about buying humiliation from Cambridge colleges wore thin after a while, and Lowell Belfield’s sweet anecdote about boy-racers seemed to lack punch. Belfield’s second appearance, however, in a musical turn with new Footlights supremo Harry Michell was a highlight of the night, the pair incongruously discussing their Neanderthal lifestyle and riffing away on the keyboard and a toy trumpet. Yet intermingled with this were a high proportion of sketches that I just didn’t really get – a recurring surrealist gag involving a man with spaghetti in his mouth was strange enough once but reappeared three separate times. A double act lampooning double acts was simply strange. Matilda Wnek, usually one of the strongest forces on the Smoker stage, gave a set satirising male stereotypes of women which felt a little stale, while a consciously-bad-taste sketch advertising Adobe Photoshop was, perhaps, a little too actually-bad-taste. Phil Wang’s opening remarks, marred I grant by the aforementioned bizarre hecklers, were also a little off-colour for me, and Mick Campbell’s one-liners, though strong in part, were delivered too quickly and without panache, so a series of potential winners went down far worse than they deserved to.

The fun of a Smoker is in not knowing what to expect, and as a rule they tend not to disappoint. I have no doubt that a weak start to the term is not any sort of harbinger of things to come, and perhaps next time the audience will be a little soberer.

Davina Moss