Comedy: Footlights Smoker
Fred Maynard finds this to be a fitting last hoorah for a bunch of comics he wishes to succeed
by Fred Maynard
Wednesday 13th June 2012, 15:14 BST
The fat lady has sung, slipped on a banana skin, plunged into the flames and Valhalla has come collapsing down. It’s the end of yet another era of the Footlights, and by God did we feel it last night. It’s a lucky thing the show was funny, because if it wasn’t, I fear it could have been better replaced by the departing comic graduands in a giant group hug, sobbing “all growed up”, repeatedly for an hour. But fortunately their melancholy was cheerfully mined for its comic potential. Ex-president and, apparently, gym enthusiast Phil Wang even described semen as melancholia in liquid form, which I felt was a rather uplifting sentiment: sad that you’re leaving Cambridge? Have a wank, you’ll feel better.
It was a privilege to review the ever-mighty Pierre Novellie on his last of approximately seven thousand outings (can you get a nicotine patch for smoker addiction?). He too seemed wistful, taking the opportunity of the Jubilee to gleefully celebrate his own adopted homeland, happily skewering our self loathing with reference to his native Transvaal, where it rains not water but bullets. It’s sad to say farewell to such a generous, hard working, and goddamn likeable comic.
Lowell Belfield too was in an exceptionally charming mood as he mumbled his way through a half-remembered song about his time here. His performance summed up the smoker as a whole, at times slightly underpowered, but so fantastically nice that we could only ever be an adoring audience. “He can do cute, at least he can do cute” said Belfield self-deprecatingly. He shouldn’t underestimate the comic importance of cute, I feel.
Sketch comedy was on the whole strong. An early surrealist “tent advert” involving what I could only take to be ghosts attempting to eat bananas was in the finest tradition of complete meaninglessness. The dropped banana remained on stage, steadily crushed by subsequent performers, surely waiting to be slipped on, a sort of comic memento mori reminding the Footlights of the lures of safe, simple, tried and tested formats out there on the professional circuits. Possibly. Ben Pope and Dominic Biddle raised the lid on the fascinating internal politics of the pantomime horse, while Jack Gamble mined the curiously underexplored vein of “Anthea Turner as a fascist”. The only note struck against the general good-naturedness of the evening was a clunking 9/11 gag at the end of an already overlong airplane sketch that was a waste of what can only be described as a promising singing unicorn-based callback. I initially thought the same of the introduction of paedophilia as a subject into George Potts and Ryan O’ Sullivan’s sci-fi time travel sketch, but the ideas were so good (it looked suspiciously like an unused Pick Me Up sketch) that they just about got away with it, which for my lily-livered palette is no mean feat.
Ahir Shah very nearly stole the show by telling no jokes at all. He was simply “so fucking wistful” that I was impressed by his bravery of using the smoker platform to just talk about how he felt to have grown up. He was extremely lucky to be backed up by enough laughs before his set that it didn’t become saccharine. And he was lucky that the evening was capped off with a tremendous rendition of The Rocky Road to Dublin from Mick Campbell and George Potts, demonstrating that no Irish greeting is complete without a lot of “wack fal al di dah”’s, a ceidlih band, and backing dancers.
While the smoker had its share of undercooked material, it was saved by what usually kills comedy, good sentiment. Pierre Novellie and Jason Forbes corpsing for a good minute to general hilarity proved the event’s fine, forgiving atmosphere remains far from the ultra-competitive elitist institution one would believe from the Footlights’ national profile. A vintage year for the Footlights? Time will, as usual, tell, but I can think of few groups I would want to succeed as much out there.