Comedy Review: WitTank: Sexy Pudding, Assembly Rooms Theatre

AS I ARRIVED at the Assembly Rooms on Saturday night, they were disappointingly empty, especially as we were about to witness what will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of the year in Durham.

The recipe for a Sexy Pudding seems to be a strange and hilarious concoction of student humour, fairytales and politics, with a surreal saucy topping. Old hands Naz Osmanoglu, Mark Cooper-Jones and Kieran Boyd were on form as ever, with last year’s new recruits India Rakusen and Guy Corbett putting in confident and slick performances.

However mention must go to new boy Jonny Muir who fitted in perfectly, his booming dulcet tones lending themselves particularly well to a  sketch that involved a radio interview. Perhaps having taken on board past criticism, the show was technically a lot more advanced, using lighting and the space on stage a lot more creatively than in past performances, and they no longer have the shortcomings that were unfortunately present in Dressed to Impress.

When sketches were based on a single idea, as in the re-enactment of the Nokia game Snake, they were kept short and therefore were very effective. WitTank seem to be no longer obsessed with having the ‘shock factor’ that had been so detrimental in the past, when the pursuit of gasps from the audience meant that the humour was completely lost.

Now, the whole focus of the comedy has grown up, and in place of the shock factor is a sense of unease, a subtle challenge to the audience’s sense of social boundaries. This particular technique works by building up a kind of uneasy suspense that provokes nervous laughter, culminating in a sudden release when circumstances get flipped upside down usually in a highly surreal or unexpected manner, with hilarious consequences.

WitTank did this so skillfully, it rivalled some of the best. The best example of this is the ‘watching’ sketch, which also demonstrated how WitTank’s sketches often work by challenging the assumptions they themselves have set up. As the slow, deep voice of Mark Cooper-Jones oozes through the speakers, we assume he is the voice of Guy Corbett situated at the front of the stage, staring intensely into the audience.

We are told he likes watching things, people and sometimes gammon, and Guy looks appropriately psychotic as Mark speaks. It is only when we hear that he is a pervert so strange and perverse that he enjoys watching the watcher, and Mark steps on to the stage that the sketch reaches its climax, as we realise that Mark is in fact “spectating the spectator”,

This sketch really exposes the assumptions that the age of the television has created, and even subverts other sketch shows on TV like Peep Show where this device of the internal monologue is frequently used.  WitTank brings these set ideas to the stage and then moves them into a whole new plane beyond the restrictions of television.

This was most effective in the ‘phobia’ sketch where, much to the horror of the audience, Kieran Boyd came out off the stage, the lights went up and the illusion that the actors were separate from the audience was shattered.

After dragging a girl reluctantly on to the stage and learning that she had a phobia of spiders, Kieran, the resident healer or “anti-coward” who dealt with phobias by exposing sufferers to their fears, decided that spiders sounded remarkably similar to “being sexually harassed by a man on stage” and danced around her to Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On. This new interactive element to the show was extremely effective, possibly because it was so invasive and unexpected.

Other highlights included Heathcliffe from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” applying for  an IT job, which also featured an incredible amount of corpsing, the problems that James from James and the Giant Peach has being a housemate with Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, and a stunning musical performance from Kieran on the gap student and his “swollen ego”.

But the highlight of the evening for me was Naz’s incredible Welsh travelling salesman skit on the many uses of a towel, which was hilarious and brilliant. In fact, it worked so well the audience seemed genuinely interested, and all were probably doing the ‘nun-boxer’ manoeuvre when they got home.

With such rubbish sketch shows as The Wrong Door and Katie Brand’s Big Ass Show on the telly, WitTank are an extremely welcome alternative with their quirky mix of satire and surrealism. Every single sketch had me laughing, no mean feat for such a diverse and eclectic mix of situations and ideas.

Having seen every single WitTank performance since Pop goes the iCulture in 2006, I know full well how these guys work. I also know that performances in the past have been a bit ‘hit and miss’, some sketches being really well worked through and others dragging on when there wasn’t much potential in the first place. However, Sexy Pudding did not suffer the same fate.

This was a slick, assured performance, impressively well executed and a laugh-a-second comedy. Sexy Pudding epitomised what WitTank is all about.

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