The Footlights deliver what's typically expected of them, but nothing "particularly fresh"Michael Elizabeth with permission for Varsity

Well, I can finally say I’ve done it: I’ve seen the Footlights. It’s a box that many Cambridge students probably want to tick off. The question is, once that box is ticked, would anyone come back for more?

I might. It’s definitely watchable. The choreographed comedic style is clean and well-rehearsed. The energy was sustained, with the second half being better than the first. The individual performers were all solid, with Jemima Langdon and Libby Thornton being particularly impressive comic actors. Though some jokes fell flat, I never once felt embarrassed for them. You get a strong sense that they’re doing exactly what they set out to do.

“The commitment to the bit is supreme, and the acting hard to fault across the board”

Conversation with an alumna I met in the audience confirmed this: she said she had an acute sense of nostalgia for her days watching the Footlights as a student in the 1980s because the style has stayed largely the same. Looking back at reviews from the last few years cements this impression that ‘Footlights gonna Footlight’, whether it makes audiences laugh or not. Criticisms like “many sketches, although performed brilliantly, are let down by the quality of the writing” (2020) and “there were a few cases where the writer/performers behind a given sketch had come up with a solid idea, but just not really fleshed it out into a funny performance” (2022) feel rather similar to the comments on the pages of notes I made during the show.

Without giving too much away, I’ve got to give honourable mentions to the beta male rats, Derren Brown, and the song about a woman called Sally, with its instantly recognisable Flight of the Conchords style. Other sketches, like the one about opening a bank account, had beats reminiscent of Saturday Night Live, with their rapidly spiralling intensity and wacky gimmicks — you’ll have to make up your own mind on whether that’s a good thing or not. The ‘rejected sketch show’ was probably the best of the night with its delicious self-awareness. The on-theme and upbeat music that played between each sketch also definitely deserves a shoutout, providing a fun and energetic palate cleanser. The commitment to the bit is supreme, and the acting hard to fault across the board. Even the performers who seemed to routinely appear in the more lacklustre sketches were able to inflect these moments with a perky energy — to middling success.

“All in all, filling an hour with fast-paced, decent quality sketches is an impressive feat”

Some sketches, however, suffered from slightly flabby middles, while others laboured under the delusion that inevitability is funny. The ongoing gag about the search for a sixth member becomes a little stale by the end, as the framing device of the show sinks without a trace, only to reappear in a finale that just feels like a do-over of the opening. Some sketches spent ages building up to a pay-off that didn’t, well, pay off, while others were eked out past the limits of their actual hilarity. I had the sense of being given an accidental insight into a writing room where just a smidge of barrel-scraping or dead-horse-beating might occasionally occur. Politically speaking, while the comedy was generally squeaky-clean, one thing that I’ve noticed in far too many Cambridge performances this year is the highly unsavoury use of working-class accents, expressions and stereotypes to evoke unintelligent or antagonistic characters. The sketch about a bewildered 999 operator might have been a lot easier to swallow, for instance, if the clueless operator and responders hadn’t spoken in a slow, vapid inflection paired with heightened inner-city Essex accents — which played uncomfortably against the RP of their exasperated interlocutor who, we are supposed to feel, represents the voice of reason. This trope is all too familiar, and we need to move past it: I hope that the next time the Footlights strike out to represent our university on an international scale they’ll have a better culture to inform their thinking on the matter.


Mountain View

The Footlights On Tour! A chat with the comedic minds behind the International Tour Show 2023

All in all, filling an hour with fast-paced, decent quality sketches is an impressive feat, especially for students, but I’m not sure if that’s necessarily enough to warrant audiences paying non-student rates. The Footlights are undeniably charming and entertaining, and I wasn’t clock-watching by any means, but they’re not bringing much that’s particularly fresh, let alone groundbreaking. Comedy is subjective and my views aren’t the be-all and end-all. If you want to tick the box, or fill an hour at a fringe festival, or have an interesting talking point that subtly lets random strangers know that you’re a Cantab, you certainly won’t be bored — chances are you’ll probably even laugh, or at least snort. But if you’re looking for something that’ll deliver every second of every minute, maybe go elsewhere. Ultimately, though, what are students if not in the process of learning and improving? Here’s to plenty of improvement in the future of this loveable quintet and this legendary comedic institution.

The Footlights International Tour Show 2023: The Search Continues showed from Tuesday 24th to Saturday 28th June at the ADC Theatre, and is currently touring Britain and the United States from July until September. It will return to Cambridge at the ADC Theatre from Wednesday 4th to Saturday 7th October, 11:00pm.