“This is fucking great. This is hilarious!” Max Fletcher is opening a package on Exeter’s front quad, tearing at the paper and giggling like some giant profane toddler. Inside are the costumes for his and Nick Davies’ new show, Failure, and How to Achieve it. “I just love the idea of two people doing a sketch show, A) in bathrobes, and B) in bathrobes with their names on,” he tells me, with an intensity of wild delight. He describes the new show as “frenetic and fast-moving” – which also serves to characterise his demeanour – and “character-based”, which also serves to characterise his character. Likewise, Davies is “one of those things that seems scattershot at first, but then as it evolves you see how well it comes together”, and that is also how he describes the show.
Failure; and How to Achieve it is the latest act to emerge from the Oxford Revue, the University’s longest established comedy group, but Davies, who will be heading the Revue this year as co-President alongside Imogen West-Knights (“We call her The Spitting Imogen”), does not view it as a branching out, and insists it does not represent a departure: “I mean for me it’s really not a branching out and I don’t think it really represents a departure”, he insists. “Our show takes some of [the Revue’s] absurdity and pushes it quite a bit further.” Fletcher maintains that the show is “totally reasonable throughout,” although cautions, “don’t necessarily not be expecting to be climbed over at some point.”
Davies and Fletcher are following in the footsteps of a number of lasting partnerships that started in the Revue. The creative affiliations behind Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe and Blackadder, to name just a few, can all trace their heritage, at least in part, to the Revue. Yet even those choice examples evoke the ugly shadow of The Other Place. Oxford comedy it seems is forever to be damned by comparison to the more established, and certainly better known, Cambridge Footlights. “When I told my friends in Canada,” admits Davies, “they were like, ‘Is that where John Cleese is from?’ ‘No, Cambridge.’ ‘Graham Chapman?’ ‘No, Cambridge.’ ‘Stephen Fry though, right?’”
Yet while the Revue might not have the prestige of their Cantab counterparts, they still labour under the weight of the Oxbridge tag. “You’re expected to be a certain way,” admits last year’s co-President, the beetle-browed Adam Lebovits, “People have an image of the Revue, or the Footlights, as frozen in time since the sixties. But it defines the audience more than the material. Nowadays, a sketch about Harold MacMillan wouldn’t go down well. If at all.” “All it means,” adds Lebovits’ former-Presidential partner, and current director, the beetle-browed Sophie Klimt, “is that sometimes when get reviewed at the Fringe people turn up and say, ‘IS THERE ANY PROMISE OF THERE BEING A FAMOUS COMEDIAN IN THIS LOT? NO.’”
Journalistic pessimism notwithstanding, the future is looking bright, both for the Revue as an institution and for its current members. In addition to Davies and Fletcher’s Failure – And How to Achieve it, which she is directing, Klimt will be continuing to work with transatlantic Revue star Molly Hart, while simultaneously going into pre-production with a sitcom for Big Talk Productions, the company behind Black Books and Shaun of the Dead. Vyvyan Almond continues to put on regular sketch nights in Oxford and London with The Awkward Silence, while Karl Dando hopes this year to turn twenty-four while still completing his undergraduate degree.
The Revue is nothing if not busy; following successful shows in London and Edinburgh over the summer, the cast have been auditioning for new members in Oxford, with a regular night at the Glee Club in the works, as well as a feature in the popular local pornographic magazine, Cherwell. The Revue has also been steadily building its profile within the University and as a force for comedy. Under the Presidency of Klimt and Lebovits, links were made with old members, including Stewart Lee and founder Michael Palin, to archive old material, while the Revue continue to encourage the comedy scene in Oxford, welcoming submissions from outside the group (most notably from local self-publicist Steffan Blayney), and showcasing student talent in the termly Audrey shows, open to all comers.
“Make your own opportunities,” encourages Nick Davies, “If you missed the Revue auditions don’t think it’s been and gone,” adding, with unexpected equine imagery, “We’re just one horse in the stable.” Adam Lebovits similarly encourages persistence, citing his own route into student comedy: “I didn’t actually get into the Revue officially through auditions,” he confesses, “but I turned up to the first rehearsal and [then President] Ollie Mann was too polite to make me leave.” “It’s quite good to do this sort of thing while still at university,” advises Fletcher, the worst case scenario being that “your friends might not laugh at you.” “If you don’t, you won’t ever know, because you won’t have tried,” he adds, with unnerving logic.
Oxford is bursting with opportunities to write, perform, and see comedy, whether as an extra-curricular pastime or, like Fletcher and Davies, the springboard to new projects. “The Revue line-up is only fixed for a year,” explains Lebovits, “which in Oxford is only 3 terms of 8 weeks, plus Edinburgh. It can only really be seen as a starting point – which perhaps sounds a bit fatalistic – but it’s the best possible starting point.” Nick Davies agrees: “You shouldn’t really paint our show as breaking away from the Revue,” he insists, “As a comedian you have to do something different.” And if I know Max and Nick, Failure and How to Achieve It will certainly be different.
Failure, and How to Achieve it is on at the Burton Taylor Studio Tuesday-Saturday of 3rd Week (25th-29th of October). Buy tickets (£6, £5 concessions) from www.oxfordplayhouse.com