Sketch Off! Final 2020 | Gig review by Steve Bennett at the Leicester Square  Theatre, London

Sketch Off! Final 2020

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

For a sketch comedy competition, there weren’t a lot of sketch groups. Instead, the Leicester Square Theatre’s Sketch Off! final last night was dominated by solo character acts – either wise to the fact that they won’t have to share the usually meagre financial rewards of the genre by going it alone – or taking no chances by not performing within two metres of anyone else.

The coronavirus certainly affected audience numbers, without half those who had already bought tickets deciding to stay away. But host Colin Hoult, in the guise of the ever-wondrous thespian Anna Mann united those who did come with her infectious joie de vivre and hugely entertaining snippets from a life in Fringe theatre.

Finalists, too, were solid. Even if no one stormed it to the extent of being a runaway winner, there was plenty to enjoy all round – with only one disappointment.

Opening the night were Stepdads – aka Luke Rollason and Tom Curzon – making a return from last year, but with less deadpan than 12 months ago and even more clowning. 

They hit a technical problem with a malfunctioning sound pedal, but that only added to the knockabout chaos of their act, ostensibly about a couple of blokes trying a little too hard to win the affection of the audience like they were its mum’s new partner, with a few sideswipes at the absent real father.

Aptly, they have a couple of dad jokes, gleefully told, and some silly prop andy physical work  – including recreating a video game on stage. You would not call any of this particularly tight, but their high spirits were as infectious as Covid-19.

More slick, and more traditional, was Kathy Maniura, whose first creation was comprehensively explained by the caption: ‘This character can’t say sarcophagus’ – which turned out to be a significant handicap for a tour guide at an ancient burial site somewhere in Europe, her accent being kept amusingly vague. The silly skit was delivered entirely straight, even the odd mispronunciations, which added to its charm.

Her second character was likewise introduced as ‘a twat’ – for which, read ‘lyrca-lout cyclist’. And though that might seem like easy pickings, Maniura’s script was sharp and unexpected enough to keep things interesting, even giving us an insight into the inner thoughts of the character’s hi-vis jacket, undergoing something of an existential crisis.

She might not be pushing at the boundaries of the genre, but with a set that was flawlessly performed and wittily and inventively scripted. Maniura was awarded the night’s top prize by judges (of which I was one).

Next up was Margaret, a perky Australian nursery school teacher who was the night’s only real misfire as she saw offence and misogyny in everything, especially the fairytales on which her young charges had been brought up. 

That Disney Princess stories are inherently sexist is hardly breaking news, and Margaret’s creator Fiona Sagar added little new to familiar gender complaints. And if she was parodying the super-woke, which seems unlikely, her comments lacked the bite of Titania McGrath.

The Awkward Silence are as trad a sketch double act as they come, with a slightly dated, actorly, ‘Radio 4 from 15 years ago’ feel to their parodies. Yet Ralph Jones and Vyvyan Almond’s pacy performances are so tight, and their script so wedded to punchlines, that they transcend the familiarity of their format.

They fire up the energy by racing through the auditorium before the pursuer corners his prey on stage. Unlikely as it seems, this triggers flashbacks to what caused each of them to have daddy issues which somehow comes to incorporate an exquisite parody of film noir/1940s romantic comedy crosstalk and a silly game show spoof. It’s a classy performance and secured the pair a well-deserved second place on the podium.

Bronze went to the final act of the first half, Roger Clammy, giving what was ostensibly a very straight first-aid lesson, incorporating some real life-saving tips, such as how to identify the different types of bleeding and the DR ABC acronym for dealing with patients.

Sam South, the man behind the deadpan, awkward exterior has more than a touch of the Ed Aczel about him, eliciting laughs from dryly explaining the mundane while getting extra chuckles from the cheesy graphics he deployed in his PowerPoint. There are twists, though, with doctored graphics and a homemade CPR doll that add nice touches of absurdity.

In a rather unfortunate scheduling clash, the first act after the break, Mark & Hayden, began with a CPR skit with a similar premise involving the song you’re supposed to sing to maintain a beat. They acknowledged the overlap, but it might have been better to have ditched that bit. Another unfortunate blight was that a later sketch relied on seeing words on a screen that were illegibly small from many places in the auditorium.

Nevertheless, Messrs. Bittlestone and Jenkins – also making a return appearance in the final – impressed with drum-tight performances and assured writing, driven by a sense of subversive mischief but expressed slickly and smartly. 

Like Maniura earlier in the show, David McIver introduced his character very precisely, as ‘a man who smoked a small amount of cannabis at a festival and didn’t inhale properly’. The merest whiff of ganja apparently turned him into a drippy hippy, floating around the stage to the strains of Enya, occasionally stopping at the microphone to drop a pearl of stoner wisdom.

Though delivered entirely differently, such aperçus brought to mind the pithy slogans of Simon Munnery’s activist Alan Parker – though that’s not a comparison anyone is going to emerge well from. Without landing a killer blow, McIver’s parodies of vague, cod-philosophical Instagram mottos are gently wryly amusing, but seem stretched over the seven-minute slot.

Avuncular Peter Fleming beams onto the stage with a patrician bonhomie explaining in his educated tones that he’s a old-school kids’ TV presenter of vintage shows such as Mrs Popjay’s Magic Attic and Millie The Steam-Powered Elephant who is now embarking on a nostalgia tour to talk about his part in the golden age of TV. Though it soon transpires, in blatant subtext, that he’s fallen on hard times.

Creator Tom Burgess bumbles along engagingly setting this up, but his set only catches alight when he starts spreading entirely scurrilous gossip about all the Blue Peter presenters there have ever been. Yell a name, and he’ll spill the beans with one improbable story after another in a wonderfully silly and fast-paced set piece. If the whole routine had been this strong he’d likely have got a placement.

He hardly qualifies as a sketch performer, but Joe Jacob brought a scintillating energy to the stage with his tight raps and no-nonsense attitude, like the Stormzy of stand-up. Even if he admitted this audience was probably not his target demographic.

Old-school tunes pressed the nostalgia buttons and he has the skills and swagger to enliven any room. Sometimes the comic inspiration is a little pedestrian – with one rap, for example, talking about how, as he’s aged, his drug of choice has changed from cocaine to Gaviscon – but he’s brilliantly entertaining.

Finally the ebullient trio of Northern Power Blouse, a far more traditional sketch outfit, and one with a distinctly female bent.  Without pushing any overt agenda, their skits revolve around the everyday experiences of being a woman, from the strong attachment to ‘the good bra’ to a what romcoms are missing when it comes to what women *really* want from a male partner.

It’s relatable and funny, while Cassie Atkinson, Kat Butterfield and token male Jack Robertson perform with heightened good humour and obvious theatrically which wouldn’t be out of place in a pantomime. Cheesy maybe, but is nonetheless effective in selling their breezy humour. Fun times!

Review date: 16 Mar 2020
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Leicester Square Theatre

What do you think?

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.