“I’m toxic, crazy and a womanizer!” announces men’s rights activist Tommy Neck (Alistair Inglis) in a saliva-spraying Glaswegian growl. “Those are also, in my opinion, Britney’s three best songs” he adds conversationally, without missing a beat. And so Witch Hunt, penned and performed by three recent alumnae of the Oxford Revue, blasts into life, a hot mess of politically-charged and gloriously weird gags.
Crammed into a narrow room upstairs at the Grassmarket Centre on a late-night billing, it falls entirely to the three performers to generate an atmosphere. And they do a brilliant job, nailing a series of increasingly weird and whacky jokes that peck away at the political absurdities of today’s world, through heavy accents and sweat-slicked wigs.
Over the course of an hour each actor delivers three or four distinct roles. The unquestionable stand out is Derek Mitchell’s Dawn Mackintosh, a cringing, simpering play on all the Sarah Palins of America – part-time bible class teacher and full time homophobic horror show with a 60s perm. As the show progresses, her daughter’s lesbianism (“I’m a Christian, and I love you… but I also worship, like next-level adore vagina”) and her own sexual frustration sees her smile stretch increasingly taut and her outburst become ever more funny. In one scene she interrupts a TV chef’s lasagne demonstration to squeak, ‘I get my lasagne sauce from a jar. One time, I found a baby bird in it!’ with the horribly misplaced merriment of someone on the verge of nervous collapse. By the end of the scene, so is the audience (from laughter, not nerves).
Meanwhile, Kathy Maniura’s obnoxiously self-satisfied, scarf-wrapped and cigarette jabbing J.K. Rowling is busy reminding everyone just how rich she is (“so rich, so rich”, for anyone wondering) and entering the world of professional politics with the breathy announcement that “Filch is… a Syrian refugee!” Inglis pulls off a head-spinning double gender flip as Tommy Neck, who is himself in disguise as a feminist figurehead of the SNP. The moment his cover is accidentally busted by a Robbie Williams ringtone, because “only a middle aged heterosexual man would cry at Angels”, formed one of the best jokes of the show.
It’s not the finished article, yet. Witch Hunt needs a bit of a rethink when it comes to plot and structure. The threads hang together a little loosely, a little over-elaborately – do we really need the gay fascist EU President Milosz, the central character who ties all the others together, but who we never quite manage to meet? And I wasn’t entirely convinced by the final minute effort to wrap the show up in the theme of witches – J.K. Rowling… get it? It felt a bit last ditch, as though the writers had suddenly realised that the connections between American evangelicalism, Glaswegian men’s right activism and children’s fiction aren’t all that obvious. But all it requires is it a bit of careful rejigging, because, at its heart, this sketch show knows exactly what it’s doing. That is, plucking away at a few of the ugliest threads of life in 2018, and playing them for every laugh they can get. With a few lizards thrown in. Because this is late night Fringe comedy, after all.