Pleasance Ahoy!

Note: This review is from 2012

Review by Steve Bennett

The Bounty in Cock Marsh, Buckinghamshire, is not a pub that hosts much comedy. In fact, it’s a pub that seems unlikely even to have a clientele, since it’s not accessible by road. Cock Marsh isn’t even a hamlet, but a water-meadow opposite the village of Bourne End. You can walk through a small wood to get there, or – better yet – hop on a tiny launch that will ferry you across the Thames, provided you can catch the attention of the boatman across the river.

The landlord has made a virtue of the isolation. ‘Twinned with Chernobyl’ says a sign over the entrance, while inside every surface is covered with paraphernalia, variously tacky, symbolic, personal or witty – sometimes all at once, sometimes none of the above. There are flags representing everything from branches of the armed services to pleasure-boat companies; handwritten community notices; old beer adverts; a stuffed seagull; plastic fish. A noose.

Host Tim FitzHigham suggests this is a pirates’ inn, with their booty proudly displayed, which flatters the sensibilities of the regulars. This is as middle-class as an enclave can be, but this is how they can express a touch of anarchy.

They’re excited about the comedy night, too. It can’t be too often comedians off the telly make the trek out here. They’ve come as part of Pleasance Ahoy: the plan to transport comics by narrowboat between London and Edinburgh, performing pop-up gigs en route. It’s officially part of the Cultural Olympiad tied to London 2012, too, which means the shows are free.

Cock Marsh is the first stop outside London – the floating funnymen are next calling at Henley on Thursday and Wallingford next Monday – and the plan had been to set up the gig outside, with the barge and the river as the backdrop. Then the weather happened, forcing the show indoors.

By critical standards, it wasn’t a brilliant comedy night, merely an average one. But it was a brilliant event, with the sort of community atmosphere you don’t get in a metropolitan area awash with stand-up nights and audiences of strangers. Or where the show doesn’t rock up on a boat.

Being posh and jolly, Fitzhigham is instantly authoritative and charming, though his banter lost its way in the first half – only to be rekindled in the second with tales of previous derring-do on the Thames, especially the bureaucracy involved in his record-breaking 160-mile paddle in a paper boat, which proved a hit with the riverside audience.

Rob Beckett has lots of ‘diamond-in-the-rough’ charisma, but his writing is largely lame, noticing, for example, that dyslexia is a hard word to spell. Who would have noticed that… other than everyone? Now and again he would transcend such things, but there’s a lot of dull observation behind that beaming smile.

Jarred Christmas took a little time to find his feet too – at least by his standards as the consummate funmonger. The prepared material about his look and sound went down OK, no more or no less, but when he threw more Caution to the Wind and waded into the audience and asked punters to throw questions or topics at him, his spontaneity tapped into the more rebellious instincts of this unusual place.

After the break, quiet Welshman Matt Rees played a blinder, though his miserable demeanour could never show joy at his success. His appealing stance as a lazy loner is backed with some sharp, inventive writing, which is deliciously underplayed. A winning combination.

Headliner Reginald D Hunter was the big draw for many, judging by the number of plaudits and autograph requests he attracted after his set. But this unlikely spot was his first gig in four months, and Hunter was notably rusty. As he freely acknowledged on stage, much of his routine comprised thoughts and observations he hadn’t yet worked into punchlines. Asides like ‘that needs to be funnier,’ got laugh that the ideas which preceded it couldn’t. Still, the man has interesting ideas and an unrivalled stage presence – and what do you expect from a free show on the edge of a village? – so he gets away with it, and not for the first time.

Still, as a happening that’s bigger than the comics taking part, Pleasance Ahoy! is clearly the sort of stupid, ambitious and playful idea that the Edinburgh Fringe does best. And by taking the shows on the road – sorry, river – the 60ft narrowboat, Meggie, is proving a great ambassador for the festival.

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Review date: 3 Jul 2012
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Bourne End The Bounty

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