The overbearing problem, I imagine, with organising a Footlights show for the Fringe must surely be ensuring the enduring quality of both material and performers. This is, after all, a group that has featured Stephen Fry, David Mitchell and Simon Bird in its Fringe line up – though not all at the same time, of course. This is a troupe that has often boasted of being the best student comedy group in the UK, if not the world. Thus, the Cambridge Footlights have some rather hefty quotas to fulfil whenever they venture out of their glittering homeland and up north to the semi-familiar, but undoubtedly savage, city of Edinburgh. Indeed, the final weeks of Easter Term must see a flurry of activity take place within the ADC Theatre, with battle plans drawn up, sketches streamlined and punch lines perfected punctually to the second; for there can be little doubt, at least upon witnessing a current Footlights show, that the performers have prepared themselves and their routines to be ready for anything that the discontented Fringe-goer, resplendent in sunglasses and ‘I Heart Edinburgh’ t-shirt, can possibly throw at them.
The venue for the Footlights’ stand-up show is the Shanghai Club on George Street; located deep underground and boasting incredibly dim lights, it nonetheless proved to be a fairly atmospheric place to stage a show. The stage itself seemed to be a heavily disguised dance floor, with a large number of chairs between this area and the bar. At first I thought the excessive seating somewhat optimistic, but it turns out that the very mention of the Footlights is enough to draw in the punters; the club ended up being packed, with latecomers forced to stand! Students formed a majority demographic, though there were still plenty of more upstanding members of society present. The fact that a vast majority of these students appeared to be Tabs surely attests to the quality of the entertainers; assuming that these chaps and chappetes had been to see the comics perform on terra firma, their very presence indicated that those performances had been so enjoyable as to be infinitely re-watchable.
With the audience comfortably settled in, it was time for the laughter lamp to be lit. The first act on was a gentleman by the name of Glen Moore, who was charmingly self-deprecating. His material was fast-paced and highly energetic; he reminded one of Jack Whitehall in this respect. His most impressive piece concerned the Nazi roots of Joy Division’s moniker; remarkably, he managed to turn this rather risky premise into a guffaw-inducing stream of puns, as he explained that a number of other musicians had dark histories behind their names. My particular favourite was ‘SS Club 7’. This willingness to turn controversy into humour is admirable, and there is no doubt in my mind that Mr Moore has a bright future on the comedy circuit.
The next act to mount the stage was an amicable American, Julia Newman. This young lady is possessed of a very dry sense of humour, which is never a bad thing when your audience is primarily British. Her routine, however, focussed principally upon issues pertaining to the denizens of Los Angeles, as well as the trials and tribulations of being Jewish. These subjects are staples in the world of comedy, and therein lay the issue; there wasn’t really anything unique on show here. Anecdotes about ‘gangstas’ and the prejudices faced when explaining one’s religion did not really click with the audience, but perhaps there weren’t any other citizens of the USA in attendance. Nevertheless, Miss Newman is undoubtedly more talented a comic than a great number of people, and her sardonic wit should endear her to British viewers.
Nowadays, the Fringe seems to be all about comedy – but what of the comedy that is so inherent in the festival itself? Step forward Phil Wang, who provided us with an excellent analysis of the madness that possesses Edinburgh during August. The ‘warning drone’ of the bagpipers, the endless flyers shoved into the hands of passers-by; he covered it all. Wang’s swaggering panache made him something of a crowd favourite, and, despite the fact that he was trying out new material, he never faltered in his deadpan delivery. He was not afraid to court Madame Controversy either, as evidenced by his frustration at his father not being a stereotypical pushy Asian parent. His ability to turn his parent’s failure to provide substance for a joke into a joke itself should also be noted, as it is this kind of wry observation of everyday life that makes for highly successful funnymen: just look at Michael MacIntyre.
The jester who followed on from Wang seemed, at first glance, to be the kind of chap that Baring-Gould might have been inclined to write about. He was soon revealed to be a jolly sort going by the name of Jonny, and the otter on his shirt invoked sunbeams more often than it did rain clouds. His job, he explained, was to write scripts and stories for various different companies, and he read out some of his more notable work. The first was a script that he had written for Disney, and it focussed on the underlying political messages in The Lion King; trading my precious childhood memories for countless cackles seemed like a good deal. The second tale was an equally uproarious work commissioned by the NHS, designed to teach young people all about sex; suffice to say that no detail was left out, resulting in rambunctious merriment. Jonny maintained a serious and engaged style throughout, reminding one of an audiobook narrator, which only added to the mirth as he delivered the punch lines; this floppy-haired humourist is definitely another one to watch.
When it comes to stand-up, the convention is to literally be upstanding and attempt to be witty. It was, therefore, a lovely change to have a musical duo enter the spotlight, and certainly kept the audience on their toes. Lowell Belfield and Harry Michel are I am, I am, the Footlights’ answer to Flight of the Conchords. Belfield had already performed as a standalone wit in his own right, offering up surreal humour that would have pleased Ionesco himself. Now armed with a guitar, he provided the occasional offhand interruption to Michel’s vocals, all of which amused the onlookers greatly. Not one to be outdone, Michel engaged with the crowd through the medium of banter, even going so far as to serenade a more respectable punter with a song expressing his platonic love for her (stating that he loved her, “like how Batman loves Robin – not how Robin loves Batman”). Their set list was made up of clever, well-written tunes, including one that managed to transform the name of every station on the London Underground into a euphemism. The combination of adroitness, music and humour makes for a potent beverage, much like Red Bull but without the horrific aftertaste, and anyone wishing to see more of this terrific twosome would be well-advised to seek out their show at the Gilded Balloon.
The host of this event, Ali Lewis, was just as entertaining as his peers, bouncing from one-liner to wicked wordplay. His style is not dissimilar to that of Milton Jones, the only major difference being that Mr Lewis is significantly funnier.
I once aspired to join the Footlights myself; however, I soon found out that entry requires two vital ingredients which I lacked. The first is intelligence, or at least good grades. The other is wit. After witnessing Monday’s parade of up-and-comers, I am satisfied that I still lack both of those essential qualities. As expected, the Footlights put on a superbly stratospheric spectacle; their show is something of a must-see, jam-packed with phenomenal wit and a plethora of talent.
The Cambridge Footlights will be performing their free show at Le Monde, 16 George Street until the 25th of August. More information is available here: https://www.edfringe.com/whats-on/comedy/free-footlights