The Affinity Project presents Act Casual and Rookie

Mon 30th April 2012

reviews

Daniel Henry Kaes

at 01:16 on 1st May 2012

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Sketch shows are hit-and-miss. Everybody knows that, particularly the hack and unoriginal student reviewers which abound in Cambridge circles. Three stars, some funny bits. So far, so obvious. "But Daniel", I hear you cry ̶ no doubt spitting out your green tea all over your Apple Mac at my affront to convention ̶ "you've given this show 4 stars! Where did this unexpected generosity come from?" Perhaps it was the three glasses of wine I shared with my director of studies before heading out, perhaps it was the opening address to the audience, which drummed into us that this was a charity event, or perhaps it was the fact that this was a damn good night of comedy. The potentially title-deciding meeting between two football teams from Manchester was not about to stop me witnessing a different heavyweight clash, as the two outstanding sketch troupes of this year met on a clear Monday night for an altogether more friendly affair in Corpus Playroom. The following review will focus on the good, the bad and a balanced conclusion that justifies these four stars. It's very long, so you don't have to read it all, but that's what's gonna happen.

The format of the show was equally balanced between the two ensembles, and there was no real evidence of competition between them, although the "now you have a go" set-up naturally presented contrasts between the respective writing and acting styles of these talented undergraduates. This friendliness and cooperation created a relaxed atmosphere conducive to comedy, right from the opening duologue symbolically delivered by a representative from both troupes: incoming Footlights president Harry Michell and the impossibly attractive Matilda Wnek. True to form, this dialogue was steeped in Oxbridge comic traditions with its fast-paced, tightly-constructed "banter", metatheatrical references and anti-comic devices. The sketches themselves were not perfect ̶ a few seemed to lack basic comedy techniques, such as, for example, let's say, I don't know, punchlines ̶ but there was never a hint of a mid-show lull, even during the often quite abrupt blackouts and the stream of questionable 90s "hits" that counted for suture.

This was never simply a battle of "girls vs. boys" (with apologies to Máirín O’Hagan of 'Act Casual') and I have long grown tired of the hackneyed debates surrounding women in comedy. Yet there were notable differences between the performance and styles that characterised the troupes. Even more interesting was Rookie's decision to "borrow" O'Hagan for a few sketches to make up for the absence of the effervescent Emma Powell and Giulia Galastro; she played a restaurant worker and a teacher, who informed us with her tongue firmly in cheek that one of the girls from her A-Level drama class was missing. Both of these roles are non-gender-specific, but the girls from 'Rookie' were determined to hang on to their gimmick as an all-female sketch group, and they more than matched the boys in their output and range of characters. They were assured in their semi-aggressive pitch and delivery of ideas (Temi Wilkey being the only performer to drop the c-bomb), as well as in their flawless incorporation of technology in their parody of romantic comedy movie trailers and montage of sexist adverts, in a less-than-subtle nod to Mitchell and Webb. Well, almost flawless: the music was clearly supposed to go off in the musical chairs sketch, and I swear the lights dimmed randomly on a couple of occasions. Or maybe I blacked out. By way of contrast, the Act Casual boys (and girl, sorry Máirín) took to the stage with an enhanced physicality that in more than one instance seemed forced, and was presumably the key factor in the continued corpsing, to the extent to which I thought it must have been faked (Michell was the biggest offender here, on one occasion even nearly managing to make himself laugh when he was the only person on-stage). Alex MacKeith demonstrated his range by showing that his Spanish accent was just as awful as his South African, from a rehearsal for "Rockin' Robin: The Nelson Mandela musical" (which never quite descended into bad taste, despite threatening to and despite an oh-so-topical reference to Joseph Kony) to a Spanish restaurant that inexplicably served pizza and couscous...and dog.

These minor negative points, however, were overshadowed by the overall quality of the show and performers, which is what I based my review on. Obviously. Special mention must go to Matilda Wnek's constant impeccable timing, Ellie Nunn's bed-making routine, which fell into that strange category of non-verbal observational humour, and Michell's bovine send-up of Rowan Atkinson's invisible drumkit, improvising Disney's "A Whole New World", following an anonymous request from the audience (I'm not mentioning any names, but it was Jeff Carpenter). Also memorable for their Oxbridgian pretension were the dystopian comment on "original sin" and the quasi-Berkeleyan posturing that follows the question: "So...who ran this bath?" (The conversation turns out to be between two birds - my note for this reads: "YES! A punchline!") In truth, the constant corpsing was not a problem (the beauty of being a non-professional production is that you're allowed to be, well, non-professional); neither was the (presumably unscripted) fire alarm 15 minutes before the end ̶ O'Hagan's teacher smoothed over this impromptu interval and the continuity of the performance was relatively unaffected (it is a sketch show, after all). The soaking-wet bottom half of Rosa Robson's shirt on resuming suggested an unfortunate altercation with a faucet at worst; at best a heroic act of firefighting. The balance of physical humour and verbal opulence, of the surreal and the witty, of sketches and skits, of girls and boys was very well thought-through and equally well carried off. In short, Act Causal/Rookie contained something for everyone in the packed out Playroom, and the lack of polish by no means detracted from the raw talent of all the performers.

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