views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Ben Van der Velde - Strudelhead
Etcetera Theatre
22nd August 2015


Ben Van der Velde

Photography provided by Ben Van der Velde

It's not you, it's me. Actually, it's not me, it's the material. Sorry. Ben Van der Velde is a thoroughly personable chap, who works his audience like a pro. Initially he struggles to get a reaction, up against both a late night slot and rising temperatures, however he soon coaxes the audience out of their collective shell and has us all laughing. It's a tough gig, but he perseveres, showing an admirable resilience.

It turns out Van der Velde has a wicked streak, because he takes a dangerous risk playing with American couple Osena and Craig - they respond with good humour, although whether that's sheer luck or the comedian reading them and establishing he won't destroy a nine-year relationship just in the name of comedy, it's hard to tell. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he's good at gaging reactions because it genuinely seems like this is where his strength lies - making banter with a crowd and knowing how far he can push them.

However, whilst his direct interaction goes well, the prepared stand-up material to Strudelhead is fairly weak. It's meant to be a work-in-progress show for next year's Edinburgh Fringe, but apparently Van der Velde has already taken this show up there once, so some of these jokes are from 2014 and should feel much sharper from practice than they do. An extended conversation between God and Abraham about circumcision goes on a touch too long and starts to feel quite tedious because of the repetition. You sense that by the time he realises this, he's in too deep and has no choice other than to string it out a little while longer whilst he tries to close down that gag and move on.

The main theme to Strudelhead is about how Van der Velde is part-Geordie, part-Jew. There's an interesting if sightly horrific anecdote involving a crucifix and a lighter, and Van der Velde also demystifies rumours of Jewish martial relations. He has a concept and he tries to write for that concept. It's just a shame few of his jokes seem to actually land. When he's relating the material he's written in advance, it feels like a barrier goes up (no, not a sheet with a hole in it) and Van der Velde immediately loses that energy from his audience, something he appears to feed off and really need. With the overlong improv, he stops looking at his audience and that's where he goes wrong. Whatever he does next, he needs to allow for more participation and get his punters involved in his entire act, rather than just having a chat with them at the start. The style that suits him is not show and tell, it's show and chat.

I'm not sure I want another helping of this particular strudel, but with the best part of a year to pen some more material and tighten up the delivery of anything he wants to keep (I suspect the makeshift synagogue story), the finished improved-recipe Strudelhead could be far more tempting. Van der Velde comes across as a great MC and far better than this work-in-progress show suggests, so he needs to go away and prove as much.

Ben Van der Velde - Strudelhead ran from 22nd to 23rd August 2015 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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