Ben Russell: The Pilot | Review by Steve Bennett at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival

Ben Russell: The Pilot

Review by Steve Bennett at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival

Ben Russell got a bit of buzz from his surreal and noirish Tokyo Hotel in 2015. But while his return to multi-character narrative again showcases some nifty performance skills, it’s ultimately less rewarding than his breakthrough.

This time, the action takes place on a Quell Air flight from London to New York, with a superficial stewardess, a co-pilot racked with self-doubt about taking the controls, a hard-bitten Chicago cop travelling home and rowdy cattle-class passengers threatening disruption (Cut the ‘economy is revolting’ joke, so ancient it must be historically protected by now). 

Russell’s strength is setting tone. With minimal props and sound effects he’s captured the mood of a cinematic melodrama from the golden age of air travel. But that was a time when characters were reserved and emotionally repressed, which rather dampens the spirits and the pace here… even when depicting the hedonistic holiday island so exclusive that only pilots are allowed on.

The bitty, thin plot doesn’t amount to much, either with needless digressions and a laboured and ultimately unfulfilling push to get everything tied up. His characters are also thinly-drawn, no matter how well acted (if you excuse the deliberately comic ambiguity of some of the accents). Russell can boast some nifty physical skills, too, but again his mime is more impressive than funny.

The best laughs come from his self-referential remarks on flaws in the show, such as knowingly  commenting ’what do you mean, "too obvious?"’. Nothing wrong with such meta jokes as part of the mix, but it spells trouble to lean so heavily on them.

This is a more turbulent show than his promising but flawed debut: a decent showcase for his thespian skills but underpowered in almost all other departments.

Review date: 21 Apr 2017
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