It is still a winning comedy formula, and this generation of Footlights will give a lot of pleasure in the coming tour. It will be interesting indeed to revisit them over the next few years to see where they will go next both individually and collectively. I predict they will be in better shape than Abba!

FootlightsIs tradition the curse or the cradle of comedy? That is the question that runs through your mind as the Footlights take to the stage at Edinburgh again as part of their annual tour. It is hard to believe that this archetypal student sketch company has been going since 1883, and touring for 50 years.

Each year the available talent emerges through a series of ‘smokers’ and then their humour crystallises under the pressure of putting on the annual end-of-the-year May Week Show in Cambridge, before a version of it goes on national and international tour, this year to a variety of American venues and the Cayman Islands (or was that a joke?)

The pantheon (or panthers?) of British humour is/are dominated by humourists who have gone on to do great things in acting, writing, stand-up or celebrity combinations of the two. Such is the pull and power of this legacy that it must be hard for a new generation to break free of expectations, whether from within the profession or from audiences who grew up with the humour of the Pythons, the Stephen Fry generation or Mitchell and Webb and want to be reminded of the glory days of their own youth rather than tested and stimulated afresh with the humour of a new generation.

FootlightsThat is the challenge for the class of 2016 as much as it has been for all those greats who have passed before them. Can they create a tight, slick, well contrasted hour-long sequence of sketches that avoid repetition, connect with today’s student audience and appeal to older ones on tour? Can they mingle the verbal and the visual? The universal and the specific? The mock-sober and the surreal? The zany and the tartly topical? The inanity and the angst? Slapstick and profundity? Above all could they find a collective voice of their own?

The packed audience at the Roxy Assembly Rooms, comprised, it should be said, of all ages, certainly thought so; and with a few tweaks and rewrites this show should travel well on the later stages of its journey.

Initial impressions were a little disappointing. Opening footage of sharks underwater did not seem to relate to anything in particular in the show, and the opening was unspectacular, with an over-long sketch of unwelcome birthday ‘surprises’ that overstayed its slot. However, from thereon the momentum picked up notably as sketch succeeded sketch with a lot of re-combinations and quick-changes along the way that kept up the pace admirably. There was always something to look at as well as to listen to that commanded attention and interest, and the skills of the five players (four men and one woman) were well matched and blended across the material.

FootlightsIt is inevitably invidious and more than usually subjective to single out individual sketches but this reviewer was delighted by a range of items, of different colours and textures. There was a delightfully sustained metaphor that compared sperm to swimmers, a pointed send-up of the rivalry between the Murray brothers, a mock-sad dust-up between two conkers that marked the supercession of one generation by another, a superbly over-the-top Abba re-union number, and a cruel exposure of a wannabee teenage guitarist.

The last two pieces were outstandingly thought-through, the one looking at accents, their transitions and relations, and the last a demolition of the game-show format in which the fourth wall is thoroughly and messily demolished. A final sketch should leave no scope for anything to top it, and this one did so.

The shift to American audiences will mean some sketches will have to go, but given the feisty acrylic colours of US politics and culture at present there was never a larger glut of potential raw material for replacements. It should not be difficult to tweak things for the road ahead. It might also be advisable to adjust the running order, and in particular to separate out the two final sketches, both of which are very strong and need a little space to resonate independently and support some of the slighter items.

FootlightsThis is professionally a very slick show. With such a fast turn-around of shows in this venue it had to be the case, but the creative team behind the scenes deserve a lot of praise for ensuring that the constant flow of props and costumes were in place as needed so that all of us could concentrate on the material itself.

It is still a winning comedy formula, and this generation of Footlights will give a lot of pleasure in the coming tour. It will be interesting indeed to revisit them over the next few years to see where they will go next both individually and collectively. I predict they will be in better shape than Abba!

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Lagoon: The Cambridge Footlights Tour Show 2016
SOURCEPhotography by Johannes Hjorth
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…