Posted by: Richard Frost | 3 Apr 2020

Review of H-Bam, Cambridge Footlights and The Durham Revue

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: March 2004
Outlet: Durham21

Richard Frost discovers that political correctness has yet to reach the Comedy Festival. But controversial doesn’t always mean funny…

Student comedy is famous for being a bit daring and controversial. Perhaps more than ever before in Durham though, the comedy served up in this year’s Comedy Festival was aimed at a very liberal (and at an excessive £7, a decidedly rich) audience.

Pretty much every group in Durham could expect to be targeted at some point in the night – Christians, Jews, Germans, Africans, homosexuals, the infirm, the rich, feminists, artists, actors – even the tooth fairy couldn’t avoid the biting satire! The love child of abusive comic Bernard Manning and cringeworthy king of tasteless remarks Prince Philip himself could hardly produce a less politically correct three hours.

Dublin: a good craic
The tone for the night was instantly set by the gross-out sketches of Dublin’s H-Bam.

Often this was done to brilliant effect, such as the S.T.D. sketch where a concerned father tells his randy daughter that he “has brought a few friends to help him out”, before unveiling a series of people parading as syphilis, herpes and of course genital warts. At other times though, such as during the graphic comparison of a sweaty scrotum to a stingray, the attempts to shock just felt forced and were sickening without being funny.

Dublin's H-Bam comedy troupe in action

H-Bam also used satirical sketches to shock, such as in the mocking of Adolf Hitler, incessantly screaming out a desire to serve his beloved schnitzel whilst friends discuss the need for a new German leader. This had more than a hint of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and the group would be well-advised to be a bit more creative and progressive if they truly want to do shock-humour. But the sketch did improve with the visitor from the future, and featured some great one liners such as “oh yeah, and don’t forget Poland’s fucking cold in winter”, before becoming truly hilarious as it introduced topicality with the summary of Iraq as “there’s a Bush, a Dick and someone gets fucked up the ass”.

This crude language was at the heart of many Dublin sketches, such as Captain Cook’s catchphrase of “what the fuck is that?” and the closing song “who gives a fuck about Easter” (hello DICCU!). What actually did happen to the agreement with DUCK about not excessively using abusive language is a mystery, but it was important in maintaining the shock value of the sketches (although at times it did fell like the language was used to cover up weaker material). Altogether a really good set from Dublin though, with the often excellent material being supported by consistently brilliant performances.

Cambridge: make a song and dance about it!
From the star performers, we were then subjected to the biggest disappointments.

Most of the Cambridge Footlights failed to recognise the importance of performing to the audience, merely delivering their lines with little expression and relying on the comic value of their intermittently funny material. The majority of sketches though, such as the Python-esque peace negotiations where the parties tried to decide whether peace or war was better, weren’t funny because they were irrelevant to the audience and were performed without conviction.

The exceptions to the deadpan delivery were the most successful performances, notably the crazed father demanding that his son make a computer from cookery ingredients and then ordering him on a holy crusade. Accidentally dropping a memo, his son picks it up to reveal the full-page message “Note to self: if the boy refuses, kill him with fire”. This combination of brilliant material and a brilliant performance by the crazed father had the audience in hysterics and clearly showed the group the most rewarding direction for future sketches.

The famous Cambridge Footlights comedy troupe

The oddball humour of the Weight and Mass Song was another highlight as a crazed girl played a pleasant ditty on piano whilst aggressively shouting “you’re wrong” as she angrily notes Einstein’s contributions to physics.

The Footlights must also be commended for featuring the one piece of stand-up in the Comedy Festival, with the mocking of a tin of mackerel’s declaration that “it’s like tuna”. The argument was carefully developed into the wittily surreal suggestion that the tin was made by a group of tuna intent on annihilating all mackerel. This variety was very welcome after 90 minutes of sketches and the positive audience responses reflected this.

Generally though, the set felt tame and unfocused as it lacked the biting satire and mockery of Dublin and Durham and was merely a set of strange or unexpected sketches without the performances to support them. The main exception was the extremely funny sketch showing the repressed Christians who obviously lust for one another but must constantly check themselves because of their Christian ideals. By actually having a target, this sketch featured a relevancy that was sorely lacking elsewhere and, whilst some Christians may disapprove of the unflattering stereotypes, the crowd loved it.

Durham: hit and miss
The crowd may have been split over the previous comedy groups, but they were all united in a celebratory mood as The Durham Revue came on for the headlining slot. All credit must go to the group’s creativity for completely renewing their set and although this inevitably meant a sizeable portion of weak material, they also came out with some brilliant sketches.

They provided what for me was the night’s standout sketch with the ever-satisfying Dave Critchley as a distinctly vicious tooth fairy, complete with ballerina’s outfit. The concept of the sketch was fantastic with the new tooth fairy justifying his methods of hitting kids to get all of the teeth in one go and declaring “Who gets you more teeth per hour than anyone else? Me”. The sketch was then brilliantly given a political twist with the fairy fighting to prove his efficiency in the newly privatised tooth-fairy industry and mocking the laziness of the fairies back in the pre-Thatcher days. The role of a violent, slightly unhinged working-class psychotic was tailor-made for Critchley, and he played it to perfection.

Naked Woody…?
The group proved it could do gross-out humour too with the (frankly nauseating) spectacle of a nude Woody prancing around stage in a sadly unsubstantial and all-too-revealing moon costume as a lunatic.

The audience were again laughing at the shock sketches as the know-it-all baby tells his mum that his dad keeps a plug in his sphincter muscle “to make it easier for men to anally penetrate him” (complete with the father’s brilliantly guilty bulging eyes), before departing to clean his soiled pants. There was also the mock advertisement for a new tampon as one girl demonstrated the new tampon while Owen Mason – as another, less convincing ‘girl’ – reluctantly proved that it was better than using a brick. Whether this stepped over the boundary into bad taste is, of course, up for debate.

Members of The Durham Revue onstage

Lobster love
Durham admirably tried to mix this shock comedy with surreal sketches too. In particular, the homosexual love story featuring a man with a fetish for dressing as lobsters was a really funny concept even if it felt slightly drawn out, perhaps due to the pressures of constantly producing new material. The same could be said of the Vac Robot sketch, which could fulfil all a housewife’s cleaning ambitions, since it was quite funny but couldn’t justify the lengthy time and multiple scenes devoted to it.

By contrast, the excruciating mockery of the elderly was comic genius precisely because it was so drawn out. The sight of an infirm couple slowly crossing stage to join hands and then agonisingly turn around and leave again was funny in itself, and became hilarious as a voice announced “meanwhile, in a distinct galaxy, exactly the same thing was happening” only to subject the audience to the same again. The onstage piano accompaniment was a brilliant touch with the player performing a small interlude song and then becoming increasingly exasperated as he was obliged to play it over and over again as the characters inched across stage.

However, it has to be said that the standard of comedy was extremely patchy, with too many sketches feeling like time fillers, such as the pointless, undeveloped sketch of a very small whore and the predictable mocking of modern art sketch.

Ultimately then a mixed set for the Durham Revue that showed some brilliant ideas and a good degree of variation, but had too many sketches that just weren’t sufficiently thought out. As is normal for the group, the acting itself was excellent, and they certainly showed intelligence in playing to their audience through the psychotic tutor who impulsively shoots students that fail to do the set reading and the priest who, inevitably, is called Reverend John.

There is no doubt then that Durham Revue had the lion’s share of the best sketches and demonstrated the most adaptable and varied comic ability, but for greater consistency H-Bam probably just shaded this year’s Comedy Festival.


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