views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

I Am Happy
The Forge
4th August 2013


Ishi Khan-Jackson

Photography © Niall Keay Photography

Even if you're not a Bollywood aficionado, Jai Ho will be an instantly recognisable Indian tune, having been made mainstream by 2008 hit movie Slumdog Millionaire. A bit of familiar ground always helps relax a crowd, and it was a good choice of music to open Ishi Khan-Jackson's one-woman comedy-slash-dance show, I Am Happy. It's just a shame that this, with its silly picking apart of the genre's quirks, is where it peaked.

Every year, the organisers of the Camden Fringe warn performers to select their venue carefully. Some are more suited to theatre, others to stand-up. Choosing the perfect venue will not in itself make a show, but with some borderline acts, every little helps. We can't help but feel staging her show at the Forge means the odds were always stacked against Khan-Jackson from the start. The large, modern space would instantly dwarf any comedian, even Johnny Vegas at his larger-than-life, confrontational heyday. Here, the tiny Khan-Jackson feels like a doll in a cathedral, making the numerous awkward pauses in her show feel even more uncomfortable. Those could have been been mitigated somewhat with a more intimate venue like the Etcetera, or, say, The Phoenix Artist Club. Both would have been just big enough to deliver her piece, but would have put both audience and performer at ease, increased the potential of banter and warmed their relationship.

Because that relationship was a frosty one. With her pre-prepared material on her mixed-up heritage failing to get the laughs, Khan-Jackson was hit by nerves and ended up in that dark vicious circle. She was too timid to get the sort of reaction from the audience that would have reassured her, and that would have enabled her to give a better performance. She had no backup plan with how to deal with an unenthusiastic crowd. It seems odd, considering she has apparently set up her own comedy night at which she comperes, and runs laughter therapy courses, that she wasn't sharper or more confident.

But the venue isn't a scapegoat and the crowd's reaction was a fair one when confronted with the writing. Long anecdotes went on without killer punchlines to justify them, ideas seeming half-formed and disposable. When you're writing a show based on your own life, it's likely you'll have to embellish the facts. Life isn't generally full of gags, just stuff that happens. There's a reason why comedy is referred to as a 'craft' - it takes skill to shape all that stuff into a bellyache of a laugh. What we did see of her home life has also been mined for material by others, to much more critical success. A spunky grandma and authoritarian father brings to mind the Kumars, for example. True, these might be tropes, but there needs to be an original spin on things.

The strongest part of I Am Happy was undoubtedly the dancing, both professional and audience-related, and maybe bringing forward the participation would have helped lift the atmosphere sooner. Some improv could also have been worth a shot - sometimes when the jokes aren't landing, you need to be bold. Ishi also battled with technical problems - varying volume levels and feedback - and the loudness certainly didn't help as she nervously gulped water, leading to longer pauses in an already spluttering and faltering set. The worst of these gaps came with a costume change that may have worked had she a screen to hide behind, but the wait was simply interminable and dampened the show.

We're not writing off Khan-Jackson - she has a lovely, warm personality (which makes this review so hard to write). We would like to say that with more experience her delivery and nerves would settle down, but she has been in this game for a while now. No, what Khan-Jackson really needs is to team up with another writer, so she can bounce her ideas off someone else, and sharpen what she's trying to say. Khan-Jackson may be happy, but she's sadly not hilarious with it.

I Am Happy was performed at The Forge on 4th August 2013, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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