Student comedy — written and performed by posh gadabouts with too much time and money on their hands. But the crisis in further education is bound to change all that, isn't it? In a bid to find out, we review the revues. Words: Andrew Burnet
SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO. I FOUND MYSELF among the privileged few who saw The Cellar Tapes. a Fringe comedy revue by the Cambridge Footlights, which went on to win the ﬁrst ever Perrier Award. Of the performers. Emma Thompson became a world-famous actress and Oscar-winning screenwriter. Tony Slattery became a well-kent face of television comedy. while Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. who wrote the show, became . . . well. Fry & Laurie. It was a vintage year for student comedy.
The Footlights is still viewed as a seedbed for British comedy. Alumni include Peter Cook, Douglas Adams. David Frost. Clive Anderson. most of the Pythons. Griff Rhys Jones. David Baddiel. Punt & Dennis and Mel & Sue — to say nothing of Germaine Greer. Other university revue teams — Oxford in particular — have also fed into the comic mainstream, but the Footlights is clearly seen as a viable route to media employment at Cambridge University’s careers ofﬁce.
20 THE “ST 20—27 Aug 1998
In these days of student loans. what will become of the Footlights and their ilk? Don‘t students now have more important things on their minds? Aren‘t they compelled to spend the summer ‘vac‘ boning up on textbooks or coating chicken drumsticks for Colonel Sanders? Hasn‘t their comedy been informed by the sour politics of financial desperation? Will the blazers ‘n' boaters brigade — for whom Daddy provides arts funding — come to dominate the varsity comedy scene? Or does the open mic represent a more direct — if more vulnerable — route to comedy stardom?
In the past week. I‘ve taken in five student revues. putting these questions to the test. My findings have been neutral; perhaps depressingly so.
Let‘s begin with the Footlights. whose pedigree allows for a professional director and designer. slick marketing. glossy programmes and a national tour. Between A Rock And A Hard Place — which might refer to students‘ predicament. but doesn‘t — is an enjoyable hour.
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The performers are endearing. and some may make a comfortable transition to Radio 4 and beyond. Several sketches are quite funny and the singing is good.
Judging from the accents. none of the live performers attended any of the Better Public Schools. but there is no political material at all. The best material. in fact. is purely silly. As director Cal McCrystal points out in a programme note. ‘often the best laughs come from stupidity‘.
The Footlights drew an almost full house and received a warm reception. but belly laughs were thin on the ground. This. sadly. was to become the theme of my travels in student comedy (this and routines based around Titanic and/or performance art).
The Oxford Revue. entitled Anatomically Correct. is also selling well. though in a smaller space. Once again, ‘endearing’ is a key adjective. Most audiences will take to the likeable performers. but similarly, few will ﬁnd themselves helpless with laughter. Once again.