A packed Oxford Playhouse played host on Saturday night to the Oxford Revue and their friends – talented Oxfordian performers, the Cambridge Footlights and the professional comedian (and Oxonian), Ivo Graham.
The night, it has to be said, did start somewhat slowly. Whilst he’s funny enough to have one the ‘So You Think You’re Funny’ award at the Edinburgh festival in 2009, Graham did not seem entirely comfortable in the role of compere – a very different skillset from a standard stand-up routine. Whilst he had his moments and was certainly not un-entertaining, improvised banter with an audience member about the Oxford Greek Play felt a little forced.
The acts that followed, however, paid testament to the creative vitality that abounds in Oxford. Opening was a song parodying both cis males and Cuntry Living. This was followed by a very cleverly devised skit by Alex Fox, who played three members of an aristocratic dynasty: the ex-Bullingdon paterfamilias, his cocky and entitled eldest son, and the youngest son – possessed of an inferiority complex as large as his brother’s ego. The piece required a lot of energy and Fox certainly had it. A highlight was the father’s uncontrollable descent into the animalistic grunting chant of ‘Buller, Buller, Buller’ – ‘it’s an ordinary club for ordinary people’, the father explains.
Despite this, the laughs came the thickest I thought when the comedians forgot Oxford and student life. Undoubtedly the best act of the first half was George McGoldrick whose collections of stories from unusual angles, delivered with the coolest of deadpans, elicited real belly laughs from the audience. McColdrick was clever and original, sharing with us the diary entries of a boy on the Hogwarts Express in the Philosopher’s Stone. Initially excited, he comes close to starvation during the journey because the ‘special one bought all the sweeties’.
Closing the first half were the Revue’s Cantabrian counterparts, the Footlights. Sadly, it didn’t feel like they were giving it their best shot. Whilst it is only fair to point out that the Tabs were neck-deep in exams last week, I couldn’t help but feel that they could have done better. The two representatives of the Footlights Oliver Taylor and [NAME] felt under-rehearsed at times. In their sketches, there were many great – and funny – ideas, but I felt that they could have done more to milk some of them for their full comic potential.
Without a doubt, however, the second half in which the Revue took over from their friends, was the strongest of the two. Ivo Graham was on better form when opening, winning the audience over by buying a random member a whole tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
The Revue were slick and professional. Having beaten the Footlights at home at the Cambridge Union comedy debate earlier this term, they managed it again on Saturday. Funny in the tradition of Monty Python and Mitchell and Webb, their material was immaculately delivered. Performing a collection of material from their recent successful shows, the Revue provided a fantastic introduction to what they do. Saturday was, to my shame and embarrassment, the first time that I’d seen a Revue show and I was astonished by the talent that was on display.
With an assortment of traditional sketches and musical comedy, the Revue had some moments of real tears in your eyes laughter. Particular favourites included Georgia Bruce’s song based on a GCSE French oral, Jack Chisnall’s performance as a door in one sketch, and a sketch in which a politician tries desperately to be ordinary but simply can’t (he clutches a pack of digestives strangely in his hand, banging it on the table for emphasis).
Certified BNOC Will Hislop was part of a troupe that really didn’t have a weak link. Already mentioned, Georgia Bruce had some hilarious parts, performing a skit with David Meredith that saw Bruce as a news anchor frequently lose connection with her reporter on the ground. Jack Chisnall – Bruce’s singing partner in Cut the Mustard – not only played a very good straight man, but his timing was also devilishly precise; Barney Fishwick delivered an outrageously funny monologue of erotic fiction – in which John Longcock, randy postman, ‘did the sex for twelve hours’.
Overall, whilst the first half did have some areas to be improved on, the Revue alone made the evening one that was not to be missed. Like their friends, they are an exceptionally talented group whose future appearances will continue no doubt to be highlights in terms to come. Departing for Edinburgh over the summer, it seems hard to believe that they will not take the notoriously dour Scots by force.
The Oxford Revue and Friends was performed at the New Theatre on Saturday 6th June.
The task of conveying Simon Amstell’s tone is not an easy one for the interview-writer, especially if the reader has not seen him perform. Almost as soon as we meet, he is drawing attention to the awkwardness of the interview setup, referring to both himself and me as “self-aware weirdos”. His style of humour combines self-deprecation and sadness with a wry smile and tight delivery. It seems that these moments of melancholy are the ones which he deems most comedic.
“In stand-up, I’m only talking about the worst things that have happened or the most upsetting things about myself. So walking around Oxford today I was feeling very peaceful and content with life – that is not going to make a very interesting story for my stand-up show. So that won’t be written down in my notepad. It’s not that I’m exaggerating a part of myself but I am editing. I’m selecting the funny parts of myself; those are the worst bits of myself.”
This method of writing can result in some hefty subject matter. Amstell’s shows deal with depression, heartbreak, and loneliness, all of which he treats with an engaging honesty.
“It’s not as good as actual therapy, but it is very helpful,” he says when I ask whether it feels good to talk through these things in front of a roomful of strangers. “Once I’ve turned something traumatic that happened into a story, I realise that actually it was all just the perception of an idiot. And so I feel healed by making up these stories.”
Making stories isn’t the only thing Amstell can do. He’s a veritable polymath of the comedy world, having created, written and starred in his own semi-autobiographical sitcom Grandma’s House, toured the UK (and more recently the US) with his stand-up shows, and presented BBC2’s staple music quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks. He’s the kind of entertainer who seems to be constantly moving on to the next project, seeking out new things to try. I have to ask what he plans to do next.
“I might direct a film. I’ve been directing some little bits and pieces this year, so I’m hoping that this year becomes the year that I direct a film. But if it doesn’t… don’t print this. It will be very embarrassing for me.”
I can’t promise him anything, but can at least hope that in setting out that ambition in an interview he’ll have something to spur him on. He certainly seems to have the backing of the industry in his endeavours; Grandma’s House received good reviews and was nominated for a British Comedy Award. Sam Spiro, who plays the waspish Auntie Liz, also took home the British Comedy Award for Best Female Comedy Breakthrough Artist. Amstell is quick to sing the praises of Spiro, along with the rest of his co-stars.
“I was very lucky I suppose in that I got a really good cast together for Grandma’s House. There’s Rebecca Front, who I love from some of the stuff she’s done with Alan Partridge and Armando Ianucci. Also Sam Spiro, who’s very funny. And Linda Bassett, who I learnt a lot about acting from.”
As well as learning from those he’s worked with, Amstell grew up on a diet of comedic artists, whose influences still help to shape his work today. He cites French & Saunders, Ruby Wax, Eddie Izzard and Woody Allen among others.
“I like anyone if they’re being quite boldly truthful about something, or if they’re taking some sort of risk. Like Larry David. I really like anyone who’s some kind of outsider and hasn’t reduced themselves in order to be liked.”
That certainly seems to be an apt description of Amstell himself, who has never been known to water down his personality; he’s famously caused the odd celebrity to walk off a show. His stand-up persona is different from the Simon Amstell who presented Buzzcocks and Pop World, but his real constancy is in his honesty. He manages to stay true to this, despite the disorientating nature of touring.
“The problem is that cities often look the same. It’s always the same grey place with the same upsetting shops. But once I’m on stage, I feel like it doesn’t matter where we are. It’s my room for that hour.”
He likes Oxford though. Touring has inevitably led him to the city several times, but his first visit was as a prospective student.
“My state school did a coach trip, to tell us peasants that we could come to Oxford. There was no barrier. But there was a barrier for me because I didn’t get three As,” he says with a laugh. He doesn’t seem bitter at all, but Oxford certainly appeared to be an ideal place to him. “I remember coming here and thinking ‘I’m going to get those three As. I really like it here.’ And I saw two boys kissing on a lawn and I thought ‘my goodness, I could really find some joy and peace in this place’. But then I didn’t get the right A-levels. So I had to carry on being sad.”
These kinds of statements make Amstell all the more difficult to fathom. He sounds sarcastic but the words themselves are pretty tragic. In some ways it’s this ambiguity that makes him so appealing. Audiences like his offbeat honesty.
“I’m very profound,” he says near the end of our interview, doing an impression of sincerity. I can’t help but agree with him.
Image credit: Carol Rosegg
Improvisation comes from the Oxford Imps, sketch shows come from the Revue, but where is Oxford’s stand-up comedy scene? To fill this gap, two student comics Harry Househam and Alex Faroe have started touring college comedy nights, which bring stand-up comedy to different college bars throughout the term. We spoke to them about setting up their nights and getting involved in stand-up nights.
Even after a year of living in London, I still don’t feel at home. Each day, I spend just over two hours of my time in a rattling steel filthy train carriage, filled with people, like me, who, exhausted from work, show little interest of engaging with anyone around them. Unless of course a free seat becomes available, then negotiation through hand gestures might arise. An all the more bizarre regular sequence of events, given that we typically see one other at least twice per week. Nevertheless, it seems we cannot and will not interact with one another.
The Revue’s Audreys are back this term. The comedy nights run by the Oxford Revue are going to take place on Tuesday of 1st, 4th and 8th week at the Old Fire Station. Barney Fishwick (one of the presidents) and Dan, the producer of the Audreys, tell us the committee are looking for people to take part in each of them.
From chatting to the committee members, the mysteriously named ‘Audrey’ comedy nights (no-one seems to know why they’re called that) sound incredibly diverse. The nights encompass stand up, sketch shows and anything inbetween. Pieces range from 4 to 10 minutes long and can be on anything you like; “we just look for something that makes people laugh,” says Barney. As the Revue scouts out some of their members from the Audreys, this could be your perfect way into the Oxford comedy scene.
The committee are holding auditions before each of the nights so keep an eye on their facebook page for details if you’re interested. Many members of the revue came through the Audreys and the two comedians advise those considering auditioning to “just set yourself a deadline and write some material to perform.”
Another tip is to go along and get inspiration from the other performers and comedians which might help you write your own piece and reflect on what works well in comedy. At the Audreys themselves you can always chat to people afterwards and ask them about their experience to see if it would be something for you to try yourself.
Having been through the audition process the current president talks about his first Audrey. He says he stood in the background playing the maracas whilst his friend played the guitar adding that it “felt like I was in some weird brothel” so it sounds like you really can start with anything that takes your fancy material-wise. You certainly shouldn’t be afraid to put something a bit more unusual out there.
This term the Audreys have a new venue in the Old Fire station on George Street which Dan says will be less daunting for first-timers. “There will be a run-through beforehand and the process will be much more collaborative and supportive.” As the new venue has a proper small theatre the whole thing seems like a step up from those open mic nights in college bars to something a little bit more professional.
Having said that, they say very few people have any experience before their first Audrey so it’s a good way to try out your skills as a comedian and see if you might like to take it a little more seriously. They emphasize the fact that you shouldn’t get disheartened and should keep auditioning for the Audreys and trying out new things if it’s something you want to get into.
The shows are a way to gain experience doing comedy and in their own words the Revue aren’t “setting the bar too high and are aiming to encourage people to perform.”
For information on events, shows, auditions and comedy in Oxford, sign up for the Oxford Revue mailing list by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marking his tenth year of making us all laugh, Mark Watson, bristolian comedian and writer, is coming to Oxford with his most recent show, ‘Flaws’. Having premiered the show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2014, he is now travelling across the country, with 65 tour dates. Oxford has “tended to be a happy venue for me”, and one that he is looking forward to returning to, he tells me.