The Occasional Students

Alex Walsh 22 February 2010


It is very hard to resist the pun offered by the name of this show and apply ‘occasional’ to its comedic merits. But to do so would be facetious and a little reductive so I am going to put aside wisecrack temptations and say that this show was dynamic, wide-ranging, farfetched and at times very energetic. Strong ideas shone through, though there were more than a few problems with their delivery. In terms of cast, the number of subjects tackled and the range of approaches, it was an impressive show. But, the whole thing could have been a leaner with more jokes per sketch.

The opening sketch was a good indicator of the peculiarity and intelligence of the show. In a scene reminiscent of Bergman’s Seventh Seal, Napoleon played chess with the Grim Reaper. Drawing on the renowned inferiority complex of the Frenchman and by creating a lack-lustre, despondent Death an intriguing dialogue emerged. Pastiche and frequent historical reference characterised the show, where King Kong and 1930s gangster movies were called on to underwrite sketches. Contemporary lines were also drawn in the serialised sketches and a particularly strong piece was given by Tom Foxall, who brought out the absurdity of the Sony Bravia bouncing ball advert as a florid and energetic advertising consultant. The show ranges across a variety of approaches and the intimate awkwardness of Thom Jenkins’ ex-con at a speed-date contrasts nicely with the rambunctious wise-talking Mafia interview. Jenkins endears himself to the audience with his naturally funny manner and there is definitely a pleasing strand of Basil Fawlty to him. Likewise Matt Owen delivered a pleasingly bolshy American whose return onto the stage was welcomed each time. The show had pleasing continuity at times and a nice sense of self-reference, which added layers to the absurdist elements.

But to some extent, the show relied too much on the characters of these three comics and the repetition of sketches. We wondered whether there was going to be anything new about the reappearance of the speed dating scene and if anything more at all could be drawn out of the ex-con. Too frequently there was not enough joke per dialogue and some sketches, such as the third about airport security passed with no laughter from the audience at all. There was a tendency to draw out sketches far longer than the number of inherent jokes would allow. The Napoleon sketch for example rather lost pace with the introduction of more and more characters and the inclusion of fewer and fewer gags.

It is of course extremely easy to criticise, and perhaps this show’s greatest weakness was its ambition. Jenkins displayed a hugely creative range of ideas, but the show did not seem to know what it was. It offered some lewdness, some high-brow comments on economic theory and some slapstick but could not quite settle on a tone. There was a lot of funny stuff here, and a lot of potential, but the material needed to be pruned, compressed and set in a more cohesive direction.

Alex Walsh