KEITH. at the Returner’s Showcase: ‘subverts expectations of comedy’

By Joseph Battuello

‘Durham’s newest and truest sketch comedy group’ is how KEITH. market themselves. The troupe are aware that they inhabit an underdog role in university comedy, and their earnest energy was prevalent throughout their half-hour preview on Tuesday night. Lacking the numbers or uniforms of the Durham Revue, KEITH.’s show is both a return to basics for sketch comedy and an attempt to break the mould. The Assembly Rooms Theatre was filled with positive vibes throughout the performance, and the audience’s laughter came in steady intervals, making for a feel-good night that ended all too soon.

The show was performed on an empty stage, with a few chairs being the exception to a performance devoid of scenery or props. KEITH. uses this blank canvas effectively, preferring to pantomime most actions. This allows the audience’s imagination to fill-in details. In the private investigator sketch, for example, Lizzie Strahan’s and Alex Taylor’s melodramatic movements and interactions with their invisible environment – including leaning on a non-existent desk and failing to light an imaginary cigarette – only amplify the absurdity of the well-written scene.

KEITH. is known for its musical comedy, at least according its members. Being so new on the scene, the group has attempted to fill an open role by presenting their jokes in unorthodox media. Their song from last year, Revue Diss Track involved starting a would-be feud with Durham’s older sketch comedy troupe, the Durham Revue. KEITH. showcased a new hip hop track during the performance in the form of Alpha Male. Performed by the soft-spoken Andrew Cowburn and the group’s only woman, Strahan, Alpha Male highlights the troupe’s strengths in their ability to provide small yet snappy jokes to a beat. The short song’s verses follow a simple pattern of fast set-ups and sarcastic punchlines throughout, but it does not overstay its welcome or become stale.

The troupe, like most in sketch comedy, works best when members play off one another. Individual performances do not particularly stand out, which is often a good sign in this genre. Qasim Salam did not have a large presence on the stage for most of the preview, though when given the chance to lead a sketch as an over-the-top veteran with a hatred for most board games, Salam makes the most of his limited time in the spotlight. Of particular note in the night’s acting was Cowburn’s excellent deadpan delivery. In an arena of bombastic and energetic characters and jokes, the ability to deliver punchlines in monotone or underwhelming ways is often overlooked. Cowburn elicited almost nervous giggles from the audience while providing the crucial setups in the ‘Undercover Boss’ sketch.

KEITH. is shaking up the status quo with a mirth that is hard to match.

The show danced around classic jokes and wordplay while also subverting the typical expectations of a sketch comedy audience. A certain positive tension was present throughout most scenes, while the audience wondered whether their predictions of the sketch’s directions would be verified. In the family game night sketch, for example, the audience quickly learned that there would be a pattern of ridiculous overreactions from Salam’s character, but the fun was found in the details of each vignette he told. This tactic did lead to one weak ending in the talking card-reader sketch. Once the pattern of jokes was established, it seemed to fizzle out at the very end, though the journey there was enjoyable.

Seemingly bred from the competitive nature of sketch comedy in the university scene, KEITH. appears to do all it can to stand out from the crowd. It would be inelegant to label the troupe as experimental, but they are definitely trying to push the boundaries of their medium. KEITH., as of right now, sits between the worlds of the tried and true sketch comedies of old and the possible future of the genre. This preview provided a chance for the group to workshop their more atypical ideas, and while they are not absolute game-changers, the ability to work around traditional constraints comes naturally to the writers of the group. One of the most important jobs of comedians is to shake up the status quo, and the members of KEITH. are taking on that responsibility with a mirth that is hard to match.

Photograph: KEITH. productions 

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