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Déjà Revue?

Posted on 30th January 2010. 6 Comments

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Donnchadh O’Conaill checks out the Durham Revue’s Christmas Comedy for a Quid Assembly Rooms, 15 December 2009

there was a natural balance to the performances and some impressive chemistry when the right performers were placed in the right sketches

Another year, another new Revue. Christmas Comedy for a Quid was the first chance for the great Durham public to pass judgement on a troupe which, Matt Mulligan apart, consisted entirely of new faces. The verdict ought to be: promising, but can do better. Much of the required improvement will simply be a matter of time; some of it will require more specific work.

On the credit side, this Revue showcased a number of striking individual performances. Not only that, but there was a natural balance to the performances and some impressive chemistry when the right performers were placed in the right sketches. The large-scale silliness was provided by Harry Bresslaw, gangling, unpredictable and with a face which exploded out from the stage at moments of excitement like some 3-D special effect. He dovetailed nicely with Ben Whittle, who has exactly two modes of performance (human jellybean and piteous loser), both of which he excelled in. Of the two, Whittle had more polish and balance. Bresslaw adds a slightly chaotic element which sometimes felt out of place, but which could become a crucial weapon in the Revue’s arsenal if better controlled.

Particularly striking was the confidence with which Coates took every role, and the economy and precision of her characterisation

Ned French’s hangdog expression and glum manner gave these more expressive performers a solid base to play off, as for instance in Secret Santa sketch. Alina Gregory was also cast as a foil in most of her appearances. I can’t remember her standing out, either in a good or a bad way, which suggests that she might be given more challenging roles to see what else she is capable of. Andrew Chambers Barrett has a more striking stage presence, with a natural poise and authority, but he appeared only rarely.      

The outstanding performer was the last of the newcomers, Tessa Coates. On this evidence, she is the most skilled actor of the troupe, and the best at putting those skills to use. Particularly striking was the confidence with which she took every role, and the economy and precision of her characterisation. As a sinister nurse in the blood donation sketch, a mother whose child has been wood-ified, and an idiotic astronaut, she added colour to what might have been rather formulaic roles. In contrast, Matt Mulligan seemed unusually subdued, appearing less frequently and to less decisive effect than in last year’s shows. This may have been partly because of the demands of managing the transition between two almost entirely different line-ups, which as the only link between the two would have fallen heavily on him. Mulligan has since left the Revue, but hopefully not the Durham stage.

this Revue has yet to find its collective voice

The writing was to a certain extent noticeable for what it lacked. There were relatively few complete duds, few sketches dragged on for too long, and there was noticeably less swearing or edgy humour than has sometimes been the case with the Revue. Certain staples of student comedy, such as out-and-out randomness or sketches based on pop cultural references, were also mostly absent. Having acknowledged these points, it remains the case that the group’s writing needs work. There was a shortage of inspired premises or well-worked-through sketches (the afore-mentioned pieces featuring Coates were the most obvious exceptions to this rule). Some of the material relied on venerable ideas: for example, the sight gags in the first two sketches, and the idea of tarot cards as either very vague or overly precise, with a ‘Your family will all die’ punchline which even those of us unschooled in prognostication could see coming.

These problems suggest this Revue has yet to find its collective voice. This was also evident in the staging of the sketches, which was rarely adventurous and sometimes rather awkward (although the Christmas lights, which stayed on between sketches, provided a nice contrast to the standard blackout). This may be partly down to the group’s not having time to properly consider issues of presentation, but to me it also suggested a certain tentativeness in the collective approach, even a lack of ambition. The sketches which failed to work did so not because they overshot the mark, but in general because the writing and performances were not pushed far enough. This may account for the fact that, unlike many sketch shows, it did not feel hit-and-miss so much as generally adequate; mostly amusing, but only rarely more than that. I take it that few people audition for the Revue with dreams of achieving competency. The new line-up have already attained that. The question remains as to how far beyond this point they dare to go.

Lastly, it ought to be mentioned that this is the first Revue in four years which will not be matched up against Wittank. This may seem like a good thing, giving this line-up time to develop at its own pace. In fact, though, I fear it will only deepen unfavourable comparisons; every stumble or mis-fire from the new Revue will be contrasted with the selectively-remembered glories of their erstwhile rivals. This would be unfair to both groups; Wittank didn’t descend from the clouds a fully-charged comedy powerhouse, and based on this performance there is no reason why this Revue can’t aspire to reach similar heights. The whole was perhaps a little less than the sum of the parts, but the parts are certainly good enough to justify optimism about future shows.


  • Birt said:

    An extremely fair and eloquent review, from an author, of whom, I have come to expect nothing less.

  • Matt Mulligan said:

    Cheers for that one, Donnachadh.

  • Eric said:

    Fair review. I saw the show and thought pretty much along the same lines. The old Revue were a lot stronger but this is probably owing to experience more than anything… i never saw any of their stuff last year, just the returners show so maybe they were the same last year.

    also i seem to be the only person who didn’t prefer wittank (saw there returners show as well). strange to compare this new line up with wittank as opposed to the old revue, which would have made more sense.

  • Laura said:

    wittank were amazing (“RIM ME HARDY”) but i saw comedyfest last year and the revue were brilliant, really really good. i reckon this years revue will be great too if given some time!

  • Stevie said:

    I thought the show was great.

    The Wittank comparison is unsurprising. It would have been interesting to compare the new line-up with the old in order to fully appreciate the different direction the group has taken. I think it’s a good, positive direction… a lot more fun and silly, which is what the Revue needs so roll on Comedyfest.

  • Jo said:

    I am one of those sad people who feels mildly excited when i see one of the ex revue or wittank around durham. this means i am probably a bit mad but as well its only because theyre sooo good!!