Sketch Off Final 2019 | Gig review by Steve Bennett at the Leicester Square Theatre, London

Sketch Off Final 2019

Gig review by Steve Bennett at the Leicester Square Theatre, London

Weird was the watchword at last night’s final of the Sketch-Off competition run by Leicester Square Theatre. Certainly the genre tends to foster more absurdity than stand-up does – though whether that always parlays into laughs is a moot point.

Opening act Dave Bibby, though, was so mainstream as to be Mr Showbiz personified, playing up the cliché of the gameshow host as he took us through a game of laddish banter. ‘It’s a character,’ he repeatedly insisted, a parody of toxic masculinity. Though that didn’t stop every punchline being a bantz-based pun like ‘Banter Claus’ or ‘The Archbishop of Banterbury’. Despite his high-octane performance, it seemed too close to reality to be parody; while his other sketch – about another bloke getting off to a porn chatline about the 1999 Manchester Utd squad might have appealed most to the very demographic he mocked in the other skit.

Taking the night’s top prize, Yes Mama!, were one of the more traditional sketch duos of the night, albeit one with strong chemistry, quirky sensibilities and an admirable commitment to pace, packing in the punchlines in their brisk seven-minute set. From a Louis Theroux impersonation to a Smirnoff Ice-inspired Army recruitment ad that’s no worse than the dreadful ‘snowflake’ campaign the MoD actually runs. Cara Lea and Alex Nash combine strong performance, unpredictability and solid jokes in a  thoroughly entertaining package that makes great use of their audio cues.

Toucan are a young female duo – Emma-Jane Hinds and Shaelee Rooke – with sackloads of perky, upbeat energy, even if their writing is inconsistent. The opening scene, training for a date as if it were a gym session, seems a checklist of Instagram memes rather than a sketch with much purpose, but the execution is great. And all is forgiven with the surprisingly poignant Bag For Life sketch, which shows they have depths as well as performing talent.

Speaking of energy, Katie Pritchard is a veritable Sizewell B, fully owning her battiness as a ‘self-appointed freelance history guide’, offering to educate us on the ancient Romans and Joan of Arc via the medium of cheap costumes. For all the anticipation this compelling persona builds up, however, the jokes simply come as rewritten songs. Of course, a silly, spirited version of Holding Out For A Hero is going to get the crowd going, but you might be wanting for more inventive writing to match he super-likeability.

Papa De Nata is the grubby alter-ego of James Hartford, doing disgusting things with the crepe he’d apparently made for us, while labouring a few agonisingly bad puns. He’s one of those Gaulier-inspired clowns who revels in making the audience feel slightly uncomfortable. On that count, job done, but this is a crowded market on the edges of comedy, and there didn’t seem much wit to his peculiar feculence.

After the interval,  Birds – aka Amy Spinks and Katy Dixon – were a lot more traditional, but dodge cliché as they packed in several sharp and savvy sketches built on real-life observations, from the dynamics of long-term relationship to the best Indian restaurant sketch since Rowan Atkinson played a waiter to expose diners’ bad behaviour.  It’s rock solid stuff which secured them a deserved bronze on the podium.

More weirdness from The Mayor And His Daughter. Mayor of where isn’t specified, but somewhere like Jinsy would fit their absurd take on things, including a bizarre study of the rise of Russell Howard. Sometimes puerile, sometimes baffling, the pair can write a joke – as evidenced by the coy daughter’s Amish gag – but very often choose not to. They are still more intriguing than funny, with just a little too much awkwardness in their interactions both with each other and the audience, but there are laughs, and with a hugely distinctive comedy aesthetic they could yet find their cult niche.

Nicholas Everritt’s Warlord Django Khan is very much one-note idea: a ferocious medieval commander employing his blood-curdling tactics to his new job as a life coach, shunning all the upbeat platitudes that normally entails. It’s a clearly funny juxtaposition but once established, he had little place else to go with his script and it felt like a long seven minutes.

In contrast, Stepdads knew how to take a simple notion and wring the most out of it. Tom Curzon and Luke Rollason present themselves as two self-consciously geeky men sharing their tips on how to endear yourself to a new family, via the medium of song, backed by the pre-loaded track on a cheap keyboard. They are appealing deadpan characters who played around with their notion, with twists and turns on the themes and even including a bit of improv to great effect. In fact, Rollason kept looking at his watch which suggests they would have gone a lot more off-piste had time not been such a factor. It’s a well-rounded set, firmly placed in an awkward world, and well deserving of their second place.

Mark and Haydn were more mismatched, as double act tradition dictates. Haydn Jenkins describes himself as all the geography teachers in the world combined into one body, Mark is the more confident alpha. They have snappy scripts, and an eye for subversive deconstruction, as in their depiction of trying to squeeze past a stranger to go to the toilet on a train. Other ideas were stretched a little thin, however, which is probably denied them a place. But they are smart comedy operators we can expect to hear more from.

Finally a few notes of praise for compere Colin Hoult, in his guise of the ultra-theatrical Anna Mann, who just beams showbiz positivity – so crucial in creating a great atmosphere – while combining great, knowing lines with a wonderfully bizarre (but almost credible) back story about her own long career on the stage. This perfectly bonkers character could have held the room for two hours alone, but still remained generous to the acts she introduced. 

Review date: 25 Feb 2019
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Leicester Square Theatre

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