Punt & Dennis: Stuff and Nonsense
Show type: Edinburgh Fringe 2007
When setting out on a British tour, what better subject to tackle than Britishness? Government ministers, religious leaders, educationalists - all of them have earnestly pondered what it means to be British. Now it’s the turn of stand-up comedians. What are our national obsessions? Who are our heroes? How can we be so nostalgic when we don't know any history? And why are we so good at getting drunk?
In their new show, Punt and Dennis set out to vaguely skirt round many of these questions. Along with many others, including the future of the BBC, whether alternative therapy ever works, whether schoolkids have any fun any more, and whether any of the towns visited on the tour don't have a Tesco.
Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis are usually described as satirists, although they’re hardly the sort likely to bring down the establishment. After all, they pretty much ARE the establishment: middle-class Cambridge graduates with long-running BBC radio shows to their names. Smashing the system is somehow inconsistent with a starring role in My Hero.
Theirs is, instead, a rather cosy type of topical comedy – a fact which they explicitly acknowledge in their live show, a couple of times at least. Their audience know exactly where they stand with the sort of familiar format and gently mocking attitude that wouldn’t be out of place anywhere in the last half-century of comedy.
But over the years, they’ve become very good at what they do. Slightly formulaic, they may be, but they’re slick, fast-moving and more than capable of absolutely nailing a gag. It’s the sort of reliable professionalism that makes The Now Show such a sprightly romp through the week’s headlines, and what has allowed it to endure all these years.
Stretched from a half-hour broadcast to a two-hour live show, which is effectively what the Stuff And Nonsense tour is, some cracks begin to show. The show flags rather too often and there’s not enough variety in tone, despite their best efforts to inject a song or sketch here and there.
Despite their initial claims to be doing what they daren’t on the radio, they play things completely safe. Second World War references, countless predictable reworkings of the ‘why did the chicken cross the road’ gag and sound effects that could have come straight from the Light Service in the Fifties show their inherent conservatism. But then, their audience are hardly seeking thrilling, edgy comedy either, as proved when a throwaway gag about rural folk being sheep shaggers earns a round of applause.
But these – and a tired newsreader parody best not mentioned at all – are the low points. Overall the show is much more enjoyable than this; thanks to a nifty turn of phrase, a generous smattering of smart, funny lines that would be the envy of gag-writers anywhere and, most importantly, Punt and Dennis’ strengths as performers.
As is almost mandatory in double acts, they comprise the straight one and the idiot. Based on their physicality you would have Hugh down as the high-status one. He’s a more imposing figure, perfectly turned out and emanating an aura of authority, compared to the scruffier, more shambolic Steve.
But they play against type. Punt has an excitable passion to inform, so becomes like an Open University lecturer breathlessly explaining his vision of Britain and what’s wrong with it; while Dennis hovers impatiently, waiting to subvert the train of thought. And he can be a surprisingly adept physical comic, prowling the stage like a velociraptor, miming Winter Olympians or aping a bird in the throes of bird flu to divert attention from the theory in hand.
He uses these silly impressions rather a lot, usually to create a running joke, but occasionally overusing them to the point of irritation. The main purpose, though, is to create a sense of fun in the show; a sense that isn’t otherwise here in the same abundance as you would witness at a Now Show recording.
But not everyone lives near enough to those always oversubscribed London tapings, and for those fans, Stuff And Nonsense is a decent replacement, even if the flashes of real wit and silliness are diluted by a workmanlike approach to their craft.
Reviewed bySteve Bennett
High Wycombe, April 2007