Karen Dunbar: Glasgow Comedy Festival

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

Karen Dunbar certainly knows the value of nostalgia in building a rapport with her audience. Like countless other comedians she taps into shared memories – often on the subject of the stupid things your parents used to say, or the embarrassing faux pas of her own youth – as the basis of her cosily familiar comedy.

Peter Kay is the comic who has trodden the same ground most lucratively in recent years, and Dunbar looks as if she’s taken a leaf out of his book – even going as far as including a segment on cheesy ‘guilty pleasure’ songs that would do the Bolton stand-up proud. And yes, Amarillo does make a brief appearance – although she prefers such school disco classis as Come On Eileen or Waterloo, complete with awkward dance moves.

The problem is that her territory is such a familiar comic landscape, that she can’t help standing on other stand-ups’ toes. How many more comedians, for instance, will describe the ‘syllable beatings’ they used to get as a child, receiving a wallop on every sound?

Yet in other anecdotes she does make these reminiscences her own, successfully combining personal tales with experiences we all shared, without seeming like she’s retreading old ground. A prime example is her vivid memory of the terror her teenage self felt when sneaking back home past curfew. These recollections seem fresher than much of the rest, and all therefore the more engaging for it. That she’s an innately likeable and relentlessly dynamic performer certainly helps, too.

But time and again she’s let down by mundane writing. She’s just come back from Australia, she frequently tells us, from which you can immediately guess precisely what areas she’s going to cover: yes, it’s hot and her Scottish skin can’t cope, and, wouldn’t you know it, some words have different meanings over there. She almost avoided doing the blindingly obvious ‘thongs’ mention – but, in the end, couldn’t quite help herself. After all, this is a show that has a gag about vibrators in the first five minutes, and ends on a formulaic Shirley Bassey lyric-switch parody, in which Goldfinger become Old Singer, so the big box of comedy clichés is certainly well plundered.

When she does try to avoid the obvious, the results are mixed. Many observational sections lack focus as she describes in detail, for example, the Cadbury’s drumming gorilla advert, without quite justifying it with witty comment or devastating payoff; and a list of things she dislikes proves similarly tepid

Yet she is capable of more. There’s a nicely surreal tale about the drug-induced rescue of a turnip, a deft characterisation of her old biology teacher and an entertainingly irrational rant against the range of greeting cards called Moonpig.

These are, however, isolated incidents in 90 minutes that are too inconsistent in quality and style. There’s not a routine in here that you could call quintessential Karen Dunbar, rather a hodgepodge of comedy techniques and approaches that almost any other comic could use. It seems that she’ll try anything in an attempt to offer something to please everyone – but its cost is that she cannot have a distinctive voice.

You can’t say it doesn’t work, however. Glasgow’s 1,500 -seater Theatre Royal is filled with so many fans of her work on BBC Scotland’s Chewin The Fat as her self-titled show that there is always someone to squeal with delight at every line.

But despite the decent reception, she’s really playing too safe, with material too nebulous and too generic, to burst above mediocrity for all but the briefest, most tantalising routines.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Glasgow Comedy Festival, March 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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