The Footlights Comedy Festival

Alex Walsh 25 February 2010

The Arts Theatre, 7.45pm 21st February


Undoubtedly, the night unfolded in a crescendo. Oxford opened the trilogy with some strong individual performances, Durham jacked up the energy and laughs and the Footlights delivered a polished, well-honed set that brought the show to climax. This may seem an unashamedly Cantabridgian response, but the audience, with a healthy proportion of older members of the public, certainly agreed. There was much good will to all, Oxford’s sketches enjoyed enthusiastic response and Durham charmed the audience with their relentless liveliness, but it was the Footlights that frequently manhandled the audience into hilarity. The differing approaches of the comedy groups provided an interesting contrast, and while Oxford and Durham seemed to oscillate around the observational, Cambridge successfully dipped into the absurd, edging away from comedic staples such as excrement and the caricatured posh . Comedic cross-over occurred to an intriguing degree, with Cambridge and Oxford both sampling the fertile ground of parlour games. Technical problems haunted all three to a degree, but the elan held especially by Durham and Cambridge saw this off.

Oxford’s opener seemed to please the audience. A tale of a man robbing a bank by telephone, it titillated the audience with banana innuendo and undertone groans at the inconveniencies of call centres. Perhaps they were aiming at a different demographic, but to me the thing seemed a little stultified and the crude innuendo did not create a particularly lively sexual tension. Oxford continued in this peeved vein, sending up nursing homes, dinner parties and awkward divorces amongst other well-used staples. It was popular, though their level of technical skill and timing was not enough to conjure roaring laughter, except under a pair of cracking partnerships. Gap year darlings taking their year out somewhere generically northern and scummy does not, again, sound particularly fresh, but the Ra-Ra caricatures of Sophie Klimt and Alice Pearse and their beautifully crafted fruity rapport made this funny. Likewise, the trilogy of the adventures of Horatio Brown (Sam Collins) and his carer (President Ollie Manne) was suspiciously reminiscent of Michel and Webb’s Adventures of Sir Digby Chicken Caesar (Robert Webb) and Ginger (David Mitchell), but their relationship was persuasively close. Collins managed the gait of an OAP, despite his youth, to the audience’s delight, many of whom seemed to sympathise.

Durham’s energy immediately brought the show alive. Interspersing micro-sketches with longer pieces, they set a pleasing rhythm. At the risk of giving a blow by blow account, Durham’s opening gambit was brilliantly conceived. Cue lift music and the awkward jostling up the vertical journey, the whole cast spilled out to reveal a seemingly tiny man playing said music on a keyboard and making the floor announcements. I loved the whimsy of it and it was a brilliant way to introduce the entire cast to the audience and establish Durham’s lively camaraderie. Durham made excellent use of music and tech to give some very sharp reveals. Perhaps their greatest moment was the spoof road safety advert, warning that jazz kills. It was excellently set up and did not need a single line to deliver its comedic blow.

Cambridge drew the show away from the mundane and deployed their characteristic freshness that to be fair occasionally submitted to tried tried and tested formula. The super-charged sense of irony that powers much of the Footlights work ensnared even our older audience with its exceptional timing. Bulmer, Moran and Tedder’s medieval metal mace/modern spray mace was perhaps the best example of this, with the absurdity oozing from each of the instalments as the story pursued its strange course through its pleasingly clumsy dialogues. Moran and Young’s Da Vinci Code spoof certainly got the popular vote along similar lines, though you feel these two have more original potential. There was also straighter work, with the dressing room interaction where a lugubrious Ian McKellen was set rudely against an earnest and confounded runner. The strength of the grand old wizard’s caricature was just enough to pull off the nudity.

The footlight’s tour de force and perhaps when the audience was cradled most intimately in comedy’s arms was their version of Never have I ever, where hyperbolically awful acts emerged, set against the all too familiar regime of drinking games. These longer pieces were nicely sprinkled with shorter sketches and it was only Cambridge that peppered its sketches with stand-up. Babar and Wang’s performances were as ever highly competent. I’ve seen a lot of these sets quite a few times and from their performances it seems Babar and Wang have a similar feeling, so perhaps some fresh material is in the offing. Oxford and Durham were welcome guests, (the former probably wouldn’t be expected to stay too long) but the audience, without doubt, belonged to the Footlights, who looked so at home on stage.

Alex Walsh