“Tell me about Audrey.” This isn’t an enquiry about an elderly relative, but rather the Oxford Revue’s New Big Thing. Audrey is a fortnightly event being held above the Wheatsheaf this term, which aims to widen participation and establish a decent and popular comedy scene in Oxford. It’s a kind of auditioned open-mic night, where prospective participants try out during the preceding week in front of the Oxford Revue, and can test their various ideas out in front of a large friendly audience. I spoke to Will Truefitt (President) and Barney Iley (Director) about this attempt to kick-start student comedy.
“It provides a platform for those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to try things out,” explains Truefitt, “even if it’s a bit rough around the edges. It’s a service to performers. Historically in Oxford, comedy has been cordoned off into specific groups. This is a way of liberating it from that.”
The concept is essentially mimicking the successful formula used in Cambridge. It’s a way of encouraging new writing, and creating an atmosphere in which it’s the norm to take the first step and give comedy a go. “If you go to Cambridge,” says Iley, “there’s a culture that you will write comedy if you want to, and you will perform it if you want to. Here, one of the biggest challenges is saying ‘go on, do it!’”
But whereas in Cambridge the Footlights act as an umbrella organisation for the comedy scene (similar to the way OUDS operates in relation to Oxford drama) the Revue are keeping themselves distinct and separate from Audrey performances. “One of the great strengths of the Revue,” says Iley, “is that we can operate as a closely knit group, a comedy troupe. We just make sure Audrey happens; Revue members are just in the pot with everyone else. It’s not a Revue show.”
The first show was popular – with an audience of around 120 – and many of the performers were doing stand-up routines for the first time ever. To succeed, though, the events will need to keep up their momentum. “Hopefully there were people in the audience who came and saw that it wasn’t a hyper-critical environment; people are there to have fun and it’s very relaxed.” says Trufitt.
It’s surprising that nothing has been done to try to kickstart student comedy before now. Oxford has no comedy culture; what is produced seems to be almost solely for the performers and their close group of friends, and there’s nothing like the scale of involvement or interest as there is in Cambridge, where the Cult of the Footlights reigns supreme. The Imps are fine before the novelty wears off by the end of Michaelmas of first year, and after that they become just another irrelevance wheeled out for college balls. And the general student consensus towards the Revue is negative; Oxford’s most recent and widely-known comedy success, the sketch group Rory and Tim, left the Revue in a state of disillusionment.
This all seems at odds with the plethora of successful comedic alumni: Rowan Atkinson, Michael Palin, Armando Iannucci and Patrick Marber all started their careers here. And although their Cambridge counterparts are famous for their Footlights involvement, the Oxonians seem to exist as independent entities. This must be down to the fundamental structural difference in the way in which the comedy scenes are set up. Truefitt defends the Oxford model: “We have a set group of repertory writer/performers, who work together on each show, and they take that to Edinburgh. It can create something that is altogether different from a Footlights show. Theirs is often much more disparate, despite their high yield.”
So if the structure’s going to remain the same, then something quite drastic is going to have to change in order for Oxford’s comedy culture to undergo a resurrection. The Revue puts on two shows each term. Of this I had no idea. Whereas plays are heavily marketed through posters, trailers, interviews and reviews, until this year the Revue has done very little to promote itself.
“Hopefully the Audreys will establish a comedy scene, like ramming a flag in the ground and saying ‘comedy is here!’” says Iley. The question remains, however, as to where exactly that flag needs to be rammed. One of the principle difficulties Oxford comedians face is not having an established performance space, a hub around which a culture might congregate. The Revue, Iley says, “has to be nomadic”; their next show is at the Old Fire Station, which is lovely but seldom frequented by students. Over the year they’ll pop into the Burton Taylor Studio, show up at a couple of comedy debates at the Union, do a one-night-only Playhouse show, and then whisk themselves off to the Fringe. It’s quite easy to miss.
Marketing and location aside, it all comes down to quality. If the Audrey events can widen participation, give people the space to practise, and forge good working relationships, then we can hope to see not just more comedy, but better comedy.