Original Review: Ealing Live!, the nursery hothouse where the lion's share of London’s best live sketch work germinates, is back for another season, its fifth, with a new working ethic.
In these early shows, the emphasis is on the new. Each week serves up all-new sketches, and almost all-new menagerie of characters to populate them, which must be good for repeat business. Only later will the best ideas and scripts be refined and reprised, as director David Sant and his talented team of 15-or-so regular contributors move towards a finished product.
So, then, the emphasis here is on the experimental, not the slick. This is the show the ensemble – or at least the nine of them who weren’t otherwise engaged in more lucrative work – could assemble in just seven days.
True enough, some of that rawness shows. Not, generally, in the performances – these are some of the best sketch actors around, after all – but scripts need tightening, the pace needs speeding up, the odd character needs fleshing out, or just to have more jokes. But there’s no shortage of good ideas, and there’s fun to be had with them even at this early stage.
This week’s show was, unusually, opened with a guest act not normally part of the Ealing Live! posse. DJ Danny Robbins wasn’t a particularly well-formedcharacter – it’s hard to see where the butt of the joke is – but his updating of the old ‘one song to the tune of another’ for the remixing age is jaunty enough.
Barunka O'Shaughnessy, soon to be seen on Channel 4 on Sunday lunchtimes, triumphantly returned to a character she played in Population 3’s touring Wicker Woman parody, the naïve-but-sinister country bumpkin, reading disturbingly surreal extracts from her ‘busy book’. Later, she would return as the politically incorrect, but savagely funny, Blind Bitch and – less successfully – as the over-passionate flamenco partner of Tom Meeten, and as a Marlene Dietrich-style glamour queen afflicted by slapstick pratfalls.
Her Population 3 co-star, Lucy Montgomery, pictured, was under-used in this week’s show – too busy, perhaps, with her roving reporter role on Channel 4’s shoddy Friday Night Project – mostly turning up in bit parts, including the ill-thought-out UN inspector checking on host Gareth Tunley’s performance. But her only solo outing, as a weepy jilted bride, really flexed her acting muscles – smearing the line between comedy and tragedy as much as her tear-sodden mascara. It was sublime stuff.
As well as hosting, Tunley performed a double act with the larger-than-life John Hopkins, with solid results. Their nicely nonsensical Ken Livingstone press conference had an air of surreal joy, blended with a welcome hint of topicality, and their Welsh pub bores was a wry idea, well-executed, although the joke of endlessly repeating the place name Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch somehow didn’t quite come of.
But Hopkins scored one of the undoubted hits of the night alongside Shelley Longworth, as a pair of hippy folk singers; him as an unreconstructed Scally exploiting the benefits of free love with his earth mother partner. He also featured in the very funny, if over-long, Tough Talk, as the host between two rabid Right-wingers brilliantly trying to out-bigot each other. Nice work, too, from Tony Law and Simon Farnaby as an American religious nut and William Hague soundalike/Tony Martin actalike.
Farnaby also reprised one of his old characters, a typically inspired anthropomorphic creation but for a new twist and new situation. His Geordie rampant rabbit, escaped from the vivisection lab and lusting over everything that moves – or doesn’t – is a far cry from anything Watership Down ever had.
Alice Lowe, from the Garth Marenghi show, made a couple of appearance with Longworth: First as a delightfully bizarre pair of Japanese schoolgirls – more Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Yu-Gi-Oh than Gilbert and Sullivan – later as a more obvious, but keenly-observed, pair of chavvy slags.
Less successful was Hopkins as a magician in an over-long and under-funny sketck, and Law as a Seventies tennis star too surreal to make a connection, though not without some decent lines. A skit with Meeten as an owl-handler had bags of potential, most of unfulfilled by this too-slow interlude, although his fleeting appearances as an embittered, desperately sad guardian angel, more than made up for it.
But what else should you expect from a scratch night like this than a mixture of the good, the bad and the funny. Even at this early stage, the strike rate’s decent, and even when the gags don’t quite come off, the vigour, daftness and commitment of the performers ensure proceedings are rarely less than entertaining.