Saturday, 16 August 2014

Sketchiform - review of Free Fringe music-based revue

Bit of an unexpected show, this. Terrible title: Sketchiform, or possibly Sketchyform or even Sketch-y-form, like there's some kind of Welsh vibe going on, but never mind all that: this is, quite simply, the funniest revue I have seen in ages.

One year in the mid eighties I decided I would only see revues at the fringe. The warped logic was that happiness could not but be amplified further with each show. Alas, nohow and contrariwise. With the exception of a show called Writers Inc there were diminishing returns. I remember telling my then drama tutor, who I bumped into at the Fest, of my plan: he looked sceptical but sadly didn't forcibly stop me. Anyway, my money and my time I wasted.

Which is why Sketchiform (I'll stick with that spelling) at the Free Fringe has been such an unexpected delight. More difficult to describe than to experience - and the element of surprise is a big factor - but here are some of the items, though I don't know how they will come across in cold print (or on a lukewarm screen).

One of the best sketches recreated the recording session for Gone Fishin' with Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby. The voices were just about acceptable, but it was the idea which swung it: Der Bingle sings, as per the record, and Louis Armstrong interjects, ditto, but what then happens is that Armstrong's asides become ever more baroque and bizarre while Bing quietly fumes or tries, without success, to get a word in. It's a routine which feels like it might have been around for decades but I've never actually come across it before. An instant classic, perhaps?

Another musical jape is perhaps more obscure, but I found myself laughing like a drain. Do you remember Bruce Ruffin's I'm Mad About You in the seventies? This was an okay reggae song enlivened by a comedy voice, like that of Mr Punch, interjecting comments and wholly undermining any serious intent - admittedly not exactly an Herculean task, as A.J. Wentworth's colleague Gilbert might have said. I vaguely remember reading that Ruffin's manager was the culprit.

Anyway, the audience is asked to choose from a list of about twenty songs and one of the cast members improvises a commentary on top. Basically, the more portentous the song the better. Elusive Butterfly and Always on the Mind were the choices at the performance I attended.

Finally there was another musical routine involving a mocked up University Challenge type quiz, only the teams were artists from two record labels, and the questions were designed to elicit terrible puns. In some cases I was ahead of them - just - but question put to the actress playing Dionne Warwick did cause a smile to play about my features. Asked how William Golding summed up Lord of the Flies, she mimed to the opening of Do You Know the Way to San Jose: "Woe, woe, woe, woe, woe-woe, woe-woe, woe, woe." The quizmaster (more Bamber than Paxo) then uttered these words: "No, it was 'Grief, sheer grief', but can we? Yes, I think we can take that."

Another bit of musical madness was again very simple. The Wurzels' I Am a Cider Drinker was not sung but recited, as though a half-proud, half-shameful declaration of an addiction.

So there we are. Not exactly biting satire but a happy way to spend one hour and ten minutes. And I ought to point out that the house band - well, three piece - did a nice line in unlikely arrangements of seventies pop hits. A strangely impassioned folky rendering of Paul Nicholas's Dancing With the Captain and Reggae Like It Used to Be reminded me of Bobby Vee's "adult" version of Take Good Care of My Baby under the name of Robert Thomas Velline (if memory serves) in the seventies. Unnecessary, because the original needs no apology.

The final sketch was my favourite: Bernie Taupin is arraigned in court for crimes against songwriting and is obliged to defend particular clunky phrases: " 'There's no one there to raise them if you did.' Did what, Mr Taupin?" The actor playing Elton's lyricist starts off arrogant but is reduced to a tottering wreck by the end, confessing everything and offering to pay back every album purchaser. There may, I suppose, have been something more serious hidden in the sketch about the difficulty of reparation but the image I will treasure is of Taupin gasping aloud when the topic of Have Mercy on the Criminal is raised. He knows what's coming - "blind to the wind of change" - someone's gotta pay for that.

I have to say that I seemed to be the only one laughing aloud by that point - alright, the sketch was probably extended beyond its natural life - but how refreshing to see a show which both gloried in its own stupidity and did, ultimately, have a point (of sorts) to make. At least I think it did. Pop music is a kind of poetry we consume daily and its makers ought to make a bit of bl**din' effort occasionally.

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