Is this the birth of a new artform? | Tim Harding's comedy diary

Is this the birth of a new artform?

Tim Harding's comedy diary

Tim Harding's comedy diaryReviewer Tim Harding gives a rundown of the best comedy he's been watching in London this past fortnight... 

Across a handful of south London pubs, it feels like there might be – whisper it – a bit of a scene developing. Nights like Pinata in Brixton and Confuse in Peckham have ben creating a focal point for a particular strain of experimental, cabaret-influenced comedy that’s harder to come by north of the river. Both nights will occasionally feature bigger names, but trade more on a curatorial aesthetic that remains consistent over time, building up a loyal audience who come for the vibes rather than any particular comic.

Those tendencies came into focus a couple of weeks ago on the spring equinox for Ostara, a one-off ‘celebration of spring’ charity gig at Hither Green Railwayman’s Club, hosted by Ozzy Algar  and Lewis Blomfield in character as the Moon and the Sun – Blomfield particularly fun playing the Sun as a delightful southern fried Broadway ham in embroidered jeans.

I was drawn to this very tucked-away corner of South London by the line-up, which promised a handful of rare acts that I seldom encounter in my nightly wanderings between mixed-bill shows. 

The first of those was Michael Brunström, calling for a new anti-Copernican revolution of thought. For whatever reason, I have always found Brunström utterly fascinating as a performer, even when I don’t love his material. There’s something in his distinctive, moleish look, his wild ambition, and his intensely earnest, almost brokenhearted delivery that I always find compelling as a stage presence. 

On this occasion, as I often find with his shorter slots, he laid an uncertain foundation and then pushed too hard and too quickly for the sublime, not quite taking the audience along with him. But so much of his material operates on a single-use, burner basis, we’ll probably never see its like again.

Tony Law took the role of the established, safe-pair-of-hands veteran, which if you’ve seen him perform may give you some indication as to how far off the wall this night was getting. He ran about ten minutes long to general delight before handing over to a very rare appearance from Martin Soan, a legendary performance artist and prop-maker listed here pseudonymously as Vernal Dream Shadow Show. 

Soan got his start doing a bizarre-sounding Punch & Judy show in the mid-1970s and has worked steadily since with alternative comedy legends like Malcolm Hardee and Boothby Graffoe. Since at least the early 1990s his live appearances have revolved around a cabinet of home-made props that are whisked out and dispensed with for quick, absurdist jokes. It reminded me of the prop gags that Tim Vine uses to break up his one-liners. It’s a lovely, timeless buffet of nonsense.

Finally, the headliner was another step beyond, showcasing a performance style that – amazingly – I’ve literally never seen before. For his unique act, Rob Pybus, the Living Cartoon, has created a 20-minute animated film about going on a catastrophic date in a bizarre version of London. 

The cartoon is projected onto the back wall of the stage with a white silhouette cut out of the middle, and Pybus interacts with the film in real time as a live-action insert. It’s kind of a mad attempt to do Who Framed Roger Rabbit as a stage show, and if that wasn’t ambitious enough, Pybus has given it a choose-your-own-adventure angle with the audience voting on what should happen next in the narrative.

The effect is far from seamless: it’s about 10 minutes too long, occasionally inaudible, and Pybus frequently becomes desynchronised with the cartoon going on around him, which is no surprise; from where he’s standing he can’t even see the projection, so he must be basing his movements largely on memory and sound cues. 

In the audience, some big initial laughs of disbelief gave way to an atmosphere of slack-jawed fascination. I don’t know if I laughed that much myself, but I absolutely loved seeing it. How often do you get to witness the mutant birth of a new artform live on stage? What a treat.

Since Ada Player had to drop out of the Osatra – which  was devised by Edward at Last and Ozzy Algar in aid of the Lewisham Donation Hub – my comedy viewing ended up being unfortunately man-heavy this week. So I wanted to shout out Rosie Nicholls and Sullivan Brown, aka, Grubby Little Mitts, who concluded the UK tour of their sophomore show Hello, Hi at the Phoenix Arts Club on Sunday. 

They’re purveyors of what I would describe as trad sketch – brief comedic vignettes without much in the way of linking material, decentralised in terms of voice. If the writing sometimes felt unfinished, especially with the end of each sketch landing a little weakly or predictably, the charismatic performances made up a lot of that ground, with Nicholls being particularly good whether as a cat or a strange woman trying to get the morning after pill in the most sexually suggestive way possible.

It felt like a good showcase for two comedic actors trying to work their way into the industry – great on dialogue and confidence but a little short on structure and surprise. A bit of trad sketch can be life affirming sometimes though, and I’ll be interested to catch their next show in Edinburgh this year.

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Published: 5 Apr 2024

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