Students go for laughs

Written for the Oxford Times, 13 August 2009

For one month every year, representatives from across the international arts community converge on Edinburgh for the biggest cultural festival in the world. Edinburgh Festival (which actually comprises a number of simultaneous festivals, from the International Book Festival to the mighty Festival Fringe) provides a chance to gauge the state of the arts the world over, without travelling beyond the city limits.

This means that for one month every year, Oxford’s cultural life is under the microscope in front of the whole world. So who are Oxford’s cultural ambassadors this August, and what kind of face do they present to the world?

The short answer is a young and highly educated one. In fact, an outsider could be forgiven for thinking Oxford was populated exclusively by students. Almost all of the city’s contributions to the Festival Fringe appear to be affiliated to Oxford University.

Between them, the acts showcase three distinct sides of the Oxford performing arts scene: straight theatre, music, and comedy.

Representing straight theatre are Keble College’s EatTheBaby Productions, with their adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange; Oxford University Dramatic Society with their version of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus; and the Lincoln Players, performing Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests.

The musical contingent is composed mostly of a cappella choirs. All-male group Out of the Blue are once again a strident presence on the Royal Mile. The gender balance is redressed by all-female group In the Pink and mixed-gender, cross-college choir The Oxford Gargoyles. A recital by Corpus Christi organ scholar Dorothea Harris and a tribute to jazz legend Miles Davis provide a contrast to all that vocal harmonising.

Finally, the Oxford Revue are performing a sketch-based comedy show entitled Etch-a-Sketch, and the Oxford Imps return after six consecutive sell-out runs to reprise their Whose Line Is It Anyway?-style improvised comedy show. These two acts are the world’s window into Oxford’s sense of humour, and it would appear the people of Oxford are especially ticklish in the language centres: puns are a pivotal element of both shows.

One entire round of the Imps’ show is given over to rapid-fire punning on a theme suggested by the audience. The troupe’s wordplay becomes increasingly elaborate as the immediately obvious options are exhausted, and players are eliminated based on the volume of the audience’s groans.

One of the Oxford Revue’s best sketches is actually little more than a flurry of painful yet hilarious alphabet-based gags, based around a vowels-only party crashed by the letter Y.

Puns are all very well, but rely on them too heavily and your sense of humour begins to appear excessively cerebral and detached from the world beyond the footlights. Like most improvisational comedy acts, the Oxford Imps allow the audience’s contributions to shape the action, so that people leave with a feeling of having participated in something, rather than simply watched. Beyond that, however, the show never claims to offer more than a silly hour of laughs, which it delivers.

Meanwhile, the Oxford Revue flirt with satire. One sketch portrays Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as a petulant teenager who doesn’t want to share. Another takes the form of a lecture, explaining the concept of political correctness through extreme examples of how not to do it. These sketches rely more heavily on absurdism than satire to get laughs, as do their send-ups of Australian soap Neighbours and Danny Boyle film Slumdog Millionaire.

The Revue really shine when they combine send-up and satire, in a Harry Potter parody that compares Hogwarts School’s exclusive entry requirements to those of the public school system – and villain Lord Voldemort, who wants the privileged wizards to rule over the non-magical Muggles, to David Cameron.

Oxford’s student comedy acts prove beyond doubt that they are capable not only of making their peers laugh in the safe environment of the college, but also of making total strangers laugh in the highly competitive environment of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Not only that, but they present a positive, rounded image of the city – unabashedly intellectual, yet politically aware, and happy to accept input from others – for the whole world to see.

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