The Oxford Revue’s website describes them as “the Waitrose of comedy”. Does this means that they’re simply better than any other comedy sketch groups outside of London? Or is it that they’re overpriced, self-satisfied and patronised chiefly by the idle rich? Only a visit to the Burton Taylor studio to see Oxford Revue Talks to Strangers would tell. Cautious types needn’t be afraid- the name doesn’t refer to audience participation/harassment, or indeed to anything as far as I can tell.
Comedy groups less confident in their audiences’ intelligence might have chosen a name that reflected the show’s theme- and yes, unlike the random and disconnected melange of sketches that characterised performances past, the Revue have decided to loosely tie this show together. So we meet Vyvyan, born of humble pigfarming stock but with dreams to be a famous actor. Vyvyan’s trip to a mysteriously unnamed city lets us discover a world by turns surreal and vaguely sinister, filled with inflatable newspaper sellers, vicious experimental theatre groups, and ruled by a tyrannical pig, General Phillip. So far, so Monty Python.
It’s a conceit that works quite well. Despite the (literally) paper-thin scenery and the deliberately vague sense of time, place or political system (porkopoly?), the “big city” develops a feel of its own. It’s easy for a sketch show to feel random, hit-or-miss, with each punchline following too closely on the heels of another, like a bad standup routine. “Didn’t like that one? Wait, let me tell you another!” Having a central narrative helped partly avoid this, stitching different kinds of comedy into a Frankestinian sketch show that lurched into horrid, funny life.
Particularly good were the noir-ish scenes where a failed actor in a trenchcoat enlightened Vyvyan about the harsh realities of acting life. “I remember when I was like you kid- I had a spring in my step. Hell, I had a fountain in my step. My damn shoes were always wet.” It’s groan-worthy, but the Chandleresque delivery had the audience roaring. The Revue are clearly most comfortable with extended pastiches like this- like Nick Davies' recurring hardball agent, a mutant crossbreed of Gordon Gecko and Les Grossman (“I’ll have my usual- chicken on the rocks. Hold the ice… berg lettuce.”) or the experimental theatre group, FIST! with its revolutionaluvvie directors: “We prefer to be called ‘Midwives’”. (Adam Lebovits, Sophie Klimt and Molly Hart skewered pretentious theatre-types with a contempt clearly born of familiarity)
These scenes showed off a mix of great writing and skilful comic writing, but they were disappointingly infrequent. The curse of the sketch show returned with a vengeance as great, subtly hilarious scenes were interspersed with one-gag sketches. These weren’t badly written or performed, just disappointing in contrast to the fleshed-out body of the show. They were painfully slow to set up, smashing the flow of the show and leaving the audience sitting laughless in the dark while the performers scrambled to prepare a sketch that would last for two minutes and end with a predictable punchline. Imagine Family Guy cut scenes if you had to wait while the performers wheeled their outlandish props into place- it just doesn’t work as well.
There were some brilliantly funny sketches, but the show felt like it needed another week of writing time behind it to pack the laughs in as tightly as possible. Definitely worth seeing, if only for Vyvyan Almond’s pitch-perfect performance as Vyvyan, the poor, struggling actor whose vast talent is squandered on an unappreciative world… er.
Alwyn Collinson (Unverified), 11/03/11
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