I feel like, at this point, provisos about the hit and miss nature of student comedy are cliché enough to be taken as read. If the attendance of the opening night of this show was anything to go by, Oxford at large is far from convinced that just because a show has the Revue’s stamp on it, it will necessarily be a guaranteed night of laughs. Watching bad comedy is genuinely painful, in a way that bad acting can never quite manage to be – the public in general knows what good comedy looks and feels like, in a way that is much more difficult to discern than good vs good dramatic performances. Added in to this mix is the fact that plays are very rarely written by the people performing them, whereas in sketch comedy we are not only judging the people on stage for their performances, but we’re judging the very premises that they are presenting to us. In this way, comedians are actually considerably braver than actors – with all this in mind, let’s get down to the business at hand – the new show, ‘Horseplay’, from the handpicked new generation of the Oxford Revue.
The sketches themselves had, for me, a hit rate of roughly 60%, however the overall tone of the show was surprisingly coherent – the sketches had a unifying voice which was surprising and impressive given the relative inexperience of the cast. If I were characterise the prevailing tone of these sketches, it would be massive, constructed, dense set ups, incredibly intricate worlds created and then paid off with incredibly simple punch lines– sometimes just puns. To describe some of the set ups, the audience was treated to a (shoddily accented) Australian spelling bee, where two of the judges were feuding divorces, all for the pay off of ‘you didgeri-did my wife’. I think these ludicrous experiments in world creation, which take an enormous amount of effort and time for these laughs founded in very simple and mechanical humour owes something to the meteoric popularity of improvisation – which has gone from strength to strength in recent years. This show really relies on an audience which will say “yes, and” to increasingly convoluted and dense sketches – Dr Seuss at the Pharmacy, someone dissecting a rat in the Missing Bean, and a completely surreal office environment with some astonishing character acting from Derek Mitchell, who quite literally had me gasping for breath.
Other standouts included Kathy Maniura’s pretentious Marina Abramovich devotee (who reminded me of several people I know) and Alistair Inglis’ Oscar nominated bishop. The problem with such vast and intricate sketch comedy is that when it falls flat, it really does fall flat – I would like to think of myself at relatively intelligent, but there were some sketches I simply didn’t ‘get’. Maybe the problem was that I did ‘get’ them, but the pay offs were so mind bogglingly simple, that I refused to belief that we’d spent quite as long as we did getting there. The one sketch that really frustrated me was set in an audition for the show, under the premise that fart jokes are unfunny, but if we present them in a knowing way, as bad comedy, then they will become funny – it’s a copout, and I am so tired of self awareness. Moreover, the changes between sketches were often choppy, and the shifts in subject matter so erratic as to make the whole thing quite disorientating at points. Overall, this was an impressive opening for this new generation of the Revue – there were plenty of faults to be ironed out, but I mostly think it’s a shame that there weren’t more people there at the opening night.