Any comedy with the Footlights brand attached to it inevitably draws high expectations from its audience, given the illustrious history behind the name – and in the show blurb, the Footlights International Tour Show 2018: Pillow Talk did not shy away from this legacy, instead wholeheartedly embracing it by describing itself as “the latest on offer from the group that launched many of the greatest names in comedy" on CamDram.
This, perhaps, is what made it rather disappointing when Pillow Talk turned out to be a number of fairly average and conventional sketches, with wide variations in comedic value. Undeniably, the show was faced with a number of constraints – not least the unusual performance venue of the Cambridge Union, with its technical and spatial limitations – but the production worked around much off these limitations in the staging of the show, and the comedians made good use of the unconventional layout to engage the audience.
Indeed, the comedy was at its best when it actively and directly interacted with audience members, effectively capitalizing on the hilarity of thrusting unsuspecting viewers (including one poor Tom, who became one of the recurring joke of the night) into the spotlight. This was manifestly clear in, amongst others, the sketch right before intermission – featuring Ashleigh Weir and James Coward as a married couple intending to flee with their children to Phoenix, Arizona. The simultaneous amusement and squirming discomfort of front-row viewers as they were casted into the roles of the ‘children’ and were ‘made’ to hold hands together and leave the room was a delightful moment that induced side-splitting laughter.
However, other recurring jokes often worked less well – indeed, perhaps the greatest weakness of Pillow Talk was in the writing and conceptualization of the sketches themselves. Many of the sketches, particularly the shorter ones, relied on a variety of tired and overused comedy tropes and cultural references – not least of all Harry Potter – and were often whimsy in a manner that often bordered on bizzare rather than amusing, such as the horse sketch. The at-times weak and formulaic sketches meant that much of the comedic potential which the team evidently possessed was squandered.
Moreover, the self-referential nature of the production, which was grounded in running jokes of how Jim Broadbent was supposed to be part of the performance but didn’t turn up, was often the weakest part of the comedy – and the random video recordings interspersed between sketches did not provide the semblance of a narrative arc or add meaningful value to the show. While the intention to present a broad variety and a mish-mash of different styles that highlights the complexities of comedy is admirable, this had an overall effect of compromising the show’s overall consistency, especially when the mix of sketches presented turned out to be decidedly uneven in quality and humour.
That being said, the team of five comedians should nonetheless be credited for their impeccable comedic timings, and for their mastery of over-the-top dramatization without becoming excessively farcical – Ashleigh Weir in particular deserves praise on this, delivering some of the most memorable moments of the night.
On a whole, Pillow Talk evoked its fair share of laughter from the audience, and the comics, technicians and directors involved clearly brought out the best in the sketches – but if you’re looking for comedy that is innovative and unique, or capable of consistently inducing genuine fits of laughter (either or both of which many other Footlights or comedy shows on the Cambridge stage have done) then you might be better off looking elsewhere.