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Friends With Benefit Fraud
The Camden Head
4th August 2012

★★★★☆

Cambridge Footlights redefined the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the 60s with Beyond the Fringe, paving the way for what it is today. The Oxford Revue certainly helped, too. Between them, the titans of the era formed some of the greatest sketch supergroups the world has ever seen.

Fitting then, that Sheffield Comedy Revue and its associated acts should be taking over the Camden Fringe in a three-show block. The first of which, Staple/face, owes a lot to those forefathers, not least Monty Python's Flying Circus. Praise indeed, comparing this bunch of upstarts to the legends that are the Pythons. Not entirely warranted, but not entirely unwarranted.

The quartet - Mike Bentley, Tom Burgess, Sam Nicoresti and Andy Goddard - certainly have the look. In both performance and stature, Bentley would make a passable Chapman and Burgess an eerily accurate young Palin. Nicoresti and Goddard bounce about between Idle, Jones and Cleese enough (the demanding customers, incompetent workers, sarcasm and screeching).

It didn't end there, though. One scene, with a man in a pub demanding a gorilla was at once the Dead Parrot Sketch and a less poetic Albatross sketch. Indeed, their sense of absurdity was incredibly indebted to that team. As was a lack of endings to their ideas, which became interrupted, questioned and generally a point of issue, something they share with their Sheffield Comedy Revue brethren.

That's not to suggest for one minute they are Python-lite. Far from it. They manage to put their own stamp on absurdity, producing some truly original sketches. A superb, smooth, pun run - almost Rain man-like in its efforts - delivered by Bentley to Goddard is a joy. Each pathetically brilliant joke mounting up, laboriously long, but never losing the audience, put even the most fierce Sun newspaper sub-editor to shame. Also, a delightfully dark, wicked Noggin the Nog tale was delivered with astounding accuracy and love for he source material by Burgess. Equally, Nicoresti's impotent rage and sheer frustration throughout was constantly hilarious, as was Goddard's exasperation, shame of defeat and shameless stripping.

Not all is rosy, though. There is a tendency towards a lot of Alan Partridge or Simon Pegg gesticulation and grimacing known in comedy circles as "that voice". Simply put, it's the awkward growl of backpedalling acknowledgement, usually combined with a Wallace (of And Gromit fame) hand movement. Not fatal, but can certainly be annoying if used to excess. Also, the use of "scene" to indicate, unsurprisingly, the end of a sketch is almost an applause card when there isn't a strong enough ending.

But those are few and far between and Staple/face mix quasi-retro familiarity with silliness and a touch of innovation to pull off something great.

Friends With Benefit Fraud ran from 3rd to 12th August 2012, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)



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