first night


The omnipresent, omnipotent Donnchadh O'Connaill is deeply moved by a sensitive and thought-provoking Comedyfest featuring the Durham Revue, Oxford Revue and Naz Osmanoglu(e)

The Comedyfest is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s good to avoid starting too fast. However, the Oxford Revue, opening the show, seemed to take this advice too seriously, and for a while they were barely moving at all. The chief problem was too many pedestrian ideas: Henry VIII being tricked into marrying a can of Alphabetti Spaghetti, Charles Dickens meeting an idiotic publisher, riffs on terrible sitcoms and pretentious thespians. The little soap opera on a bus had some nice lines but meandered from one story-line to the next, and ended limply with what was either misguided satire or a lazy piece of wackiness. In addition, the performances suffered at times from a lack of chemistry. For example, the fight at the end of the sketch between the bitchy talk-show hosts had little conviction, and just felt awkward.


As the group found their feet, some stand-out performers did emerge. Nick Davies, perfect as the deep-voiced comic leading man, and Vyvyan Almond, wiry and wry, dovetailed in a number of sketches. But it was telling that the highlight of their set was a solo spot, Sophie Klimt’s fire safety speech: tightly written and smartly performed, with laughs garnered from actions as simple as standing up and sitting down. The single biggest difference between this sketch and the rest of Oxford’s material was a clear sense of the comedy as coming from a character. The sketch was silly but the silliness made sense; elsewhere, the group were content to throw random oddness at us, with predictably erratic results.


The Cambridge Footlights, who were to be the other pre-interval act, unfortunately had to withdraw. The Revue’s David Head thus had to turn MC to welcome the replacement act, stand-up and Durham alumnus Naz Osmanoglu. Head’s own set went down a treat, though I felt at times he relied too heavily on the well-worn stand-up trope of comically overblown rage at small irritations. His forte is material that dares the audience to dislike him, delivered with an endearing cheekiness that keeps us on his side; his riffs on his sex life just about managed to walk this fine line. Osmanoglu, suitably for a man replacing an entire sketch troupe, had masses of energy, prowling the stage and firing sawn-off banter at a “Geordie wizard” and a Hatfield lad. The set had a number of highlights, among them his tale of audience participation at an Amsterdam strip club, and the Bear Grylls material, still amusing despite being familiar to many in the audience. However, I did feel the set was a little too long, or perhaps episodic. There was no real overarching theme on which the stories could hang, and they tended to follow each other without building into anything more. This gave the feel of two or three fifteen-minute sets being crammed into half an hour, each one losing somewhat as a result.


The Durham Revue opened with a slickness that immediately set them apart from most of Oxford’s offerings. Both groups had sketches with a ‘voices in the head’ theme, but Durham’s was constructed more carefully, with individual characterisations which set it apart. Durham’s other great strength was some accomplished interplay between the performers. David Head and Steffan Griffiths lifted a sketch about a serial killer applying for a job above the ordinary; Head and Steffi Jones turned three excellent sketches about an unfortunate stalker and his deceptively innocent stalkee into a delightful cautionary tale; the whole troupe excelled in the Christmas family sketch.


The writing was on the whole strong, although it did use a number of sketches from the Christmas show. Of these, the best was Tessa Coates’ turn as the ballet instructor from hell. While Coates has a wonderfully controlled nastiness, the excellence of the writing (moving from bitchiness into surrealism and back to even greater bitchiness) might be overlooked and ought to be applauded. The new sketches contained very few misfires. Stand-outs included the afore-mentioned stalker sketches, and a sketch set in feudal Japan. This featured a lovely, grave performance from Fergus Leatham, who is settling into his role as the somewhat stiff authority figure.


The group could look to broaden their palette. I noticed a tendency to pitch everything at the same, slightly inoffensive level, and I didn’t think much of the few times they departed from this. A sketch set on a train had a delightful performance from Griffiths as the man pretending to be a child, but was spoiled by a hackneyed reference to pederasty. Griffiths in particular could bring an extra dimension to the group: in straight theatre, he has demonstrated both menace and a charming vulnerability, neither of which were explored here. I was also slightly frustrated by the use of Gilbert Gregory. He has a sad-eyed, roly-poly charm which was funny in the few roles he was given, but he was more often the butt of jokes related to his appearance. Alina Gregory had more stage time, but often in straight roles, and I was unconvinced by her comic doggerel about a gambler.


The verdict on this year’s Revue? Good, getting better, and with room to be better still. They won the Comedyfest by a head, but for a final verdict, we must see how they cope with the stiffer challenges that await.


20 March 2011

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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