With comedy sketch shows, it is almost impossible to know which, if any, of the performers may become successful – famous, even – in the future.
I am old enough to have been stumbling around in the primeval alternative comedy mists of the last century and seen the Edinburgh Fringe show by the Cambridge Footlights group which included Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Tony Slattery. I was aware of their names because it got a lot of newspaper coverage afterwards – that’s one of the benefits of going to Oxbridge. But all I really remember, unless my memory fails me, is Stephen Fry sitting in a wing armchair wearing a smoking jacket and reading a very linguistically convoluted story from a book.
“Well,” I thought. “That’s very literate and he seems to aspire to being someone older than he is, but he’s not going to go very far with that as an act.”
I was also working at Granada TV when they made the long-forgotten sketch show Alfresco. I saw one being recorded in the studio. It starred Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Ben Elton, Robbie Coltrane and Siobhan Redmond. The writing was a bit rough-and-ready and the cast made no impact on me at all, except I remember feeling Robbie Coltrane thought a bit too much of himself and Ben Elton thought he was cock of the walk. I am sure they have changed.
Which is all a pre-amble to the fact that I have seen three sketch shows in the last three days at the Edinburgh Fringe. They may have contained the big comedy and/or drama stars of the future, but who can know for sure? Certainly not me.
I went to see The Real McGuffins’ Skitsophrenic because I had met Dan March at a couple of previous Fringes, notably when he performed his Goldrunner show about being a contestant on the TV gameshow Blockbusters when he was a kid.
I saw The Real McGuffins perform at the Fringe last year and, while they were OK and energetic – a better version of the more-publicised Pappy’s aka Pappy’s Fun Club – they were, in truth, nothing special. This year, they are something special. The scripts are sharper, the performances are even sharper and the show zips along at a tremendous pace. They have also kept and improved on a scripted interaction between the three performers which adds a semi-narrative thread – always a good thing in sketch shows which, by their nature, can be very disjointed.
This unification of their comedy sketch show is something The Durham Revue’s 33rd Annual Surprise Party! does not have. They try to paper over the unavoidable gaps between separate sketches with extremely good and instantly recognisable rock music. But choosing such good music turns out to be a mistake as the extracts are so strong it distracts from rather than unifies the various sketches. I mentally opted-out of the live show to bop-along in my head to the music between sketches, then had to opt back in to the live show. Bland music, ironically, would have been better. Or some live running link to creatively Sellotape over the gaps.
At least one of the Durham Revue team appears to have the charisma necessary to get somewhere in showbusiness in the future but (see above) who can tell?
As for Casual Violence’s Choose Death, which I saw last night, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. There were a lot of tears, a lot of shouting, several characters’ deaths, Siamese twin assassins, a clown and a serial killer who looked like Daniel Craig on acid, but what exactly was going on or why was utterly beyond me. Nothing made much sense at all but the characters seemed to believe in what was happening within their own fictional world. Casual Violence could have created a new genre of ‘realistic surrealism’. There was certainly an awful lot of shouting which seemed to work rather well. But I have no idea why.
The six performers and keyboard accompanist were uniformly good and strangely realistic while being totally OTT in a script which was from another plane of reality on another planet. The important factor was that the script seemed to make logical sense to the characters within the show. And, while played straight and getting plentiful laughs from a near-full house, there was such an element of complete surreality permeating the whole thing that I warmed to it after about ten minutes and enjoyed it thoroughly throughout – without knowing what was going on over-all. The words made sense. The sentences made sense. But what was happening had more than one layer of insanity. It had the logic of a long-term inmate in a mental asylum.
The Real McGuffins were slick, smooth and ready for television and Dan March is a star in the making.
The Durham Revue performers need another year at the Fringe but showed promise.
Casual Violence’s Choose Death was so strange it is beyond any sane description and, in a long-shot way, is the most interesting of the three. The show was written by James Hamilton. I think he may need psychiatric help. Though not creative help. He is doing something right. There is something very original in there. I just don’t know what the fuck it is.