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Preview: Dates

Charlie Atkins looks forward to Oxford's most topical sketch show yet.

Given the opportunity, I think many of us wouldn’t mind skipping the traumatic year that has been 2016. And yet when Jeremy (played by Stephen Rose) finds himself in this very situation, having spent the year in a coma, he is presented with more problems than might be expected. His woes are brought to a peak when he tries to re-enter the dating scene, having to be cruelly brought up to speed by Karen (Sarah Borg) as the two go on their first date together. Plenty of misunderstandings ensue, and the audience is left laughing at the absurdity of the political and social events that have happened over the course of this year.

This is the premise of ‘Coma 2016’, the first of three sketches of Dates that I was treated to last week. Written by fourth year linguist Rebecca Heitlinger and produced by Charlie Silver, the show is made up of eight distinct comedy sketches, all highlighting various tribulations faced by young people today. The show can trace its roots back to the end of the last academic year, when Heitlinger and Silver made a successful bid to put on the show, and it was written over the course of the summer vacation. As such, Dates is able to play with the most recent of political and social themes – the rise of Donald Trump, the fall out from Brexit, and the collapse of high street giant BHS are all sources of humour.

But it would be wrong to characterise Dates as show focused on current affairs. The show is at its best when exploring some of the tensions young people face in their romantic and social lives, as I witnessed in a sketch called ‘Tudor Tinder’. Here, the fictional Lady Anne (played by Sophie Stiewe) is introduced to the 15th century’s answer to online dating. It’s not quite as easy as today’s Tinder, with the court aristocracy having to exchange portraits and rely on the hilariously curt Count Tinder (Alex Matraxia) to pass on any messages, but the characters revel at the newfound freedom it gives them. At one point Lady Anne is so enthused with the ability to choose a partner (and to be able to choose based on looks, rather than on the wealth of a prospective suitor’s estate) that she exclaims “Finally I can stop being the property of my father, now I can be the property of another man!”

Despite the fact that the cast were still fine-tuning the show when I came to watch it, the acting was professional and the jokes felt well delivered. And you would expect it to be, given that six cast members (Heitlinger too plays various roles as well as having written it) were chosen from more than 40 auditionees.

The last sketch I was presented with demonstrated flexibility that comes with a talented cast. In ‘iPhone vs. Samsung’, a smug iPhone (Alex Matraxia) gloats of his prowess in front of a woeful but ultimately likeable Samsung phone (Oli Thompson). Both deal with their struggles to ‘connect’ in different ways, but an audience will be able to laugh as the sketch emphasizes the ridiculousness of masculine competitiveness and the (often silly) social expectations we accept as part and parcel of dating.

Sketch comedy can be difficult to pull off–especially when it seeks to tackle diverse and pertinent social issues without sacrificing humour. But Dates manages to keep the jokes consistently funny thanks to a highly effective cast and by being unafraid to base sketches on unusual premises.

As the show reminds us in its opening sketch, 2016 has been a rough year. But if you want something to make you laugh before it’s all over, you could do a lot worse than Dates.

Dates is on at the Burton Taylor Studio daily at 9:30pm from the 22nd until the 26th of November inclusive. Tickets are available from the Oxford Playhouse website.

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