Arguably the most difficult thing about writing and performing sketch comedy is finding a way to break convention. For a comedic form which relies so heavily on the element of surprise, leading the audience to make assumptions about what they are watching and then hilariously subverting their expectations, even good sketch shows can often feel predictable in their reliance on formulaic structure.
‘Speechless’ so rejects this kind of predictability that its whole basis lies in the outright refusal to participate in the most pervasive comedic convention of all: saying things. As we are told in a slick introductory film, the show is set in a world where comedic speech has been outlawed after a ‘controversial referendum’, a satirical parody which frames the otherwise apolitical show. The shock result in favour of the so-called ‘Toulouse Agreement’ means that live speech in comedy is strictly forbidden – ‘comedians were just too mean’, Director Patrick Wilson (playing a Mr Bigoté) tells the camera, before being arrested for unintentionally making a pun. In the Speechless universe, the only way to make people laugh is through physicality, movement, voiceover and video – to show the tyrannical Speechless government that comedy cannot be censored so easily.
The expository film, then, frames the show as somewhat revolutionary; a grandiose claim, perhaps, for an hour of student sketch comedy, but one that, as the house lights came up an hour later, I wouldn’t quarrel with. Speechless’ real revolution was not, however, in its sly nod to the political landscape, which returns at the end of the show with a reference to the authoritarianism of Trump – though I did think the frame was a nice way of adding some peripheral depth. Really, it is the show’s ability to deliver a series of profoundly original sketches – every single one of which is not only hugely funny but feels new, exciting, and inventive – that marks its most significant achievement. Without the need to structure sketches around spoken punchlines, there is rarely a moment which feels derivative or dull, and the show never runs out of steam in its ability to offer new ways to make us laugh without saying a word.
The cast deserve a huge amount of credit for the making every sketch land so effectively – their performances are precise and engaging without veering into tropey clowning. Each of them brings their own individual talents to the diverse range of physical comedy that Speechless showcases: Jess Murdoch nails the awkwardness of a girl whose answerphone interrupts her date; Anna Wright pitches the mindless dancing of a girl on a night out perfectly; Joe Sefton steals the scene in a wonderful flash-mob-in-a-surgery sketch with some disarmingly well-executed dance moves. Special mention has to go to Dan Allum-Gruselle, whose deadpan wide-eyed stare veers from endearing to disturbing over the course of the hour, but remains hilarious as a punchline in itself.
The production is incredibly slick, with some brilliantly choreographed sequences from movement director Rachel Kitts (a sublime Very Hungry Caterpillar GCSE Drama sketch being a particular highlight in this regard), and the innovative use of luminous blocks as a moveable, minimalist set gave the whole show a hugely professional aesthetic. Ultimately, both on and off stage, Comrie Savile-Ferguson glued the whole thing together; as sound designer he created a great little musical motif which linked all of the sketches, as creative director he is largely responsible for the hugely ambitious but amazingly well-executed concept, and as a performer, he, perhaps more than anyone else, commanded the stage with an unflinching commitment to the physicality of his performance.
It is easy to imagine the ways in which the restrictive concept of Speechless, which essentially prohibits all the most reliable ways of making people laugh, could have ended up feeling gimmicky, cheap or ultimately just not very funny. As it is, whether it is in spite of the premise or because of it, Speechless is one of the most inventive, unusual, ambitious and consistently funny sketch shows I’ve seen in Cambridge.