The Gentlemen of Leisure at the British Museum

Note: This review is from 2013

Review by Steve Bennett

Any comedy show that takes place within the imposing confines of the British Museum already has an edge. This is not a place linked with laughter, so the mere act of fooling around near the invaluable glass-encased artefacts makes the audience – or tour group – feel like naughty children misbehaving on a field trip.

But The Gentlemen Of Leisure – aka Nish Kumar and Tom Neenan – haven’t simply relied on being out of context for their laughs, but have crafted a genuinely funny introduction to some of the treasures of civilisation that’s packed full of comic business. A unique experience, it’s only flaw is that, at 30 minutes, it’s over far too quickly.

That time includes a cheeky pre-tour survey, trying to establish what brought visitors to the museum, as well as taking in the Rosetta Stone, the Nereid Monument, and the statues from the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Though, of course, it’s not in Halikarnassos any more...

The obvious running gag about how these historic items have been ‘acquired’ by the British is nicely done, with exaggerated air quotes around that key verb. And throughout the tour, the pair maintain the idea that they are a couple of chancers with minimal grasp of their subject, while somehow imparting some genuine information amid the smartarse comments.

The exhibits provide the raw material for their mini-sketches, with the stand-out being the Rosetta Stone, which proved so crucial for the translation of previously indecipherable Egyptian hieroglyphics. The ‘old GOL’, as the duo are wont to calling themselves, decide to conduct this section using a more modern equivalent – popping the English description into an online service, translating it Spanish and Mandarin, and back again. It’s a tried-and-tested method to generate hilariously mangled language, and this version (which just might have been slightly embellished) hits the spot perfectly, densely packed with silly turns of phrase.

A couple of rooms and several wry comments later. they re-enact Charles Fellows and George Scharf discovering the Nereid Monument in modern-day Turkey, an over-the-top chunk of hammy thespian grandstanding, with Neenan again failing to be held back by any lack of ability.

Both he and Kumar have the sort of dumb enthusiasm that make them endearing guides – a stance they underpin with a knowing irony that adds an extra layer to the comedy, without undermining the genuine passion for what they are doing.

That’s why we could do with hearing more from them –  about the Elgin marbles, the mummies, the Cyrus Cylinder or the Lewis Chessmen – for the idea of comedy in a museum is such a strong one, and so well-executed, that you can’t help but feel there’s so much more to be explored. After all, they have the entirety of human civilisation for raw material.

Review date: 20 Jan 2013
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Reviewed at: British Museum

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