“Heroes of British Comedy” brings sketch comedy to Michigan
NORTHVILLE, Mich.–British comedy teams and the U.K.’s genre and tradition of sketch comedy is unique, and sometimes doesn’t export very well. Sometimes it does. Heroes of British Comedy, produced by Mind The Gap Productions and running now at The Marquis Theatre in Northville has a bit of both.
Those who love the comedy of Peter Sellers, Peter Cook, Rowan Atkinson, Monty Python and Dudley Moore should like Heroes just fine, as the excellent cast achieves a very good batting average across 23 sketches that span about two hours with an intermission.
Writer and director Adrian Diffey is clearly passionate about the topic. A Brit himself, Diffey appears in many sketches, and we even get a glimpse of him as a younger man doing a Peter Sellers bit in a British pub with another actor via a film clip projected on the Marquis’ screen. There are a handful of other film clips in the show, including those from Charlie Chaplin, Sellers and John Cleese, which are blended with the live acts.
One of the key differences between British sketch comedy and that which has been popular in the U.S. (think The Carol Burnett Show, the Dean Martin Variety Show) is that British comedy is often not knee-slapping funny. It is more wry and subtle. It is often more likely to generate a grin and a giggle than a belly laugh. Take a bit originally done by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore about two British blokes so intent on making small-talk, being polite and well-mannered in the British way that they have a conversation about one another’s lives despite the fact that they have never met before.
There are some modern bits too, and the women of British comedy are represented. A sketch from present-day English comedian Fiona Allen about the absurdity of ordering coffee in a modern coffee shop is explored. And there is a bit of singing in the show, too. “All Alone” from Spamalot, for example, is sung and acted. A particularly funny sketch is “Phobia Workshop,” which brings together people of various phobias that all conflict to merry mayhem.
The ensemble–Diffey, Fran Potasnik, Carrie Jay Sayer, Jeannine Thompson, Dale Vandrese, Stephen R White and Richie Slater–handle the material deftly. Diffey’s mixing in of film clips of Chaplin, Sellers, Cleese, etc. works to connect the older work to the more modern work, and show how comedians of the 1960s were influenced by Chaplin, and how comedians of the 90s were influenced by those of the 60s.
Anyone who has ever watched Saturday Night Live, or even Monty Python, knows that not every sketch lands. Just like a baseball game, there are hits, strike outs, homeruns and errors. A couple of the sketches could have been edited out. But humor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And I heard laughs during sketches that didn’t quite move me. Likewise, I giggled at times where others didn’t.
The Marquis Theatre is a charming, historic venue, though probably a bit too vast for sketch comedy. The show would feel a bit better at a smaller, club-like atmosphere. But finding the right performing space can be tricky. In any case, I had never been to the Marquis, so I was glad to visit a new venue.
This show is actually Heroes of British Comedy 2, as Mind The Gap performed a smaller version of the show last year in Saline. The nice thing about this material is that there is an endless supply of it do draw from. Diffey can learn from experience which bits land, and which do not, with Michigan audiences, and continue to hone the offering.
Heroes of British Comedy plays through April 9, and tickets are $15, and $10 if you are a member of EncoreMichigan’s e-Casting service.