Cambridge Footlights Review - Canal Cafe

In the bar with Jonny Fluffypunk after watching the full hour and a bit of the Cambridge Footlights’ Edinburgh preview ‘Wham Bam’, I say “What do you reckon then?” “Load of middle class shit” he says. “Yeah they’ll all be on radio 4 at 6.30 next spring and the tall bloke with the glasses - he’ll have his own series on BBC2 within 5 years”. “More than likely” I say “What was his name then?” Before I can get an answer a media bod is buying the drinks and pitching a reality show idea to another one of the cast - a not so tall one without glasses. Meanwhile I spot the tall bloke with the glasses and approach him. “If you give me your programme I’ll mention you by name rather than the tall bloke with the glasses”. “Darling give him your programme” he says to his girlfriend. “But I…” she whimpers “Darling give him your programme” he insists and she hands it over.

Henry Elliot and his higher educated mates performed their light-weight sub-Mitchell and Webb sketch show with a slick professionalism you’d expect. They’d all learned their lines, they made reasonable efforts to interpret their allotted characters (which for the most part were inter-changeable ) and they all had good diction- especially Henry. But this sort of comedy revue is a pretty sterile theatrical form, particularly when performed by students who have no artistic instinct to express themselves and are cynically presenting a product which might just offer them a lazier and more lucrative career path than the one they were following before they joined the college drama society and began having fantasies about being the next Stephen Fry. That said, the end piece was a minor revelation. The cast became a scratch band – big Henry became disarmingly awkward playing an old-fashioned concertina and Helen Cripps (the only woman in the troupe) languidly played perfunctory percussion as if it was beneath her. The other three played guitar, trumpet and glockenspiel and looked for a moment as if they might reveal themselves as characters in their own right rather than clever actor types doing something Malcolm Hay in Time Out might describe as ‘mildy amusing’. Why they didn’t start with this larky band line-up and develop the personal and build relationships is of course the limitation of the form and in this case the youth of the people that performed it. “OK,” I say to Jonny, “What was the bottom line?” “I didn’t laugh” he says. “They made no attempt to make me think, so they had only one remit - to make me laugh. And they failed.”  I was prepared to be more lenient – on their own limited terms I felt they were vaguely innovative. I liked the fact they’d included an almost serious piece about farming humans early on in the show which put their audience on the back foot; and I did actually laugh once - it was at their parody of a medical students college revue (but that’s only because I’ve been to the Edinburgh Festival enough times to understand the references). 

But No! Johnny was right - they weren’t funny. They were privileged kids churning out some mediocre, forgettable, unchallenging stuff. It was Punt and Dennis minus the topicality, Little Britain without the dodgy sexuality, it was the next generation of middle-brow quiz panellists and presenters making their first safe moves to be in the right place at the right time. Fuck ‘em! Already we’d given them more space than they deserve. We wander outside the pub and there ensconced in the garden three parts parts-pissed is aging bohemian toff Matt Devereaux holding court to a gaggle of hoorays. He’s on a roll, working the crowd, and without missing a beat he acknowledges our presence and continues with his rant against West End musicals – it’s sour grapes, but the bile and the envy are owned and obvious. It’s inherently personal and that’s what makes it so funny. We’re laughing out loud for the first time since we were chatting to him much earlier. Henry Elliot walks pass with his Mrs and hails a cab. In 25 years time, with some bad breaks and wrong turns, he too could be that pissed and that funny.

Tony Allen. July 2007.