To theatre or not to theatre? London Laughs was a brilliant showcase for young talent

It’s a true quirk of our times that over the last three years a growing number of “laugh shows” have been rapidly stealing the hearts and minds of a new generation of theatregoers in Britain. The London Laughs season, which returns this week, is no exception. Such shows can work: some of the city’s more talented comedians have started to take their cue from the Alternative Comedy Awards.

But the downside is that while the UK has plenty of clubs (and DIY venues in action), there are only a few world-class theatrical venues. Nightlife doesn’t transfer easily to theatre. It also takes years for a successful, steady flow of new talent to emerge. Until that happens, the growth of the UK comedy scene means that occasional swathes of material remain unrecorded. This leads to something of a risk for comedy. Anyone who thinks the Global Fringe is a joke should keep a look out for Circa, a searingly skit-driven show that filled the Apollo Theatre with audience members last year; and When: Jerusalem, which continues to be one of the world’s best travel shows and will soon be shown in the UK.

For those performing acts during the Apollo’s biannual September and January seasons, the skills they develop during those sporadic months can pay off in huge ways, particularly in terms of theatrical impact. Both Tobi – in Greenwich, and Comedians Read: Dominic Sidebottom, Natasha Leggero, Emily Plain, Shelley Gores; Metcalfe – in Islington – – are TV and standup regulars who’ve benefited hugely from the Apollo’s excellent know-how.

The Apollo has always been famous for its conceptual intervention – in the earliest days of the Apollo Iggy Pop, Patrick McGoohan and Ena Sharples had featured in one of the production’s first shows. In London, this remains important. In June, as part of a season called Ship and Sails, British comedian Ray Cochrane took the Apollo stage and created the world’s shortest opera; last month, the theatre’s renowned Puppet Theatre, led by creative director Tarik Saleh, played ballet class for an evening, while Rob Woodall and Graeme Shelley went on a charades journey. Last week was also an opportunity to hear new work as much of the main house was refurbished; Benji Gardner and the Writers Theatre Studio team were among those to present shows.

London Laughs 2018 by musical comedy also offered evidence of the evolution of the format. Future Kings, presented by Soft Sparkle, was perhaps the most memorable show of the season. The pianist Lani Poston stood behind the scenes to play the songs in the style of The Queen of Sweden, while compere Paddy Boonan expressed “how we all wish they would just do Barbra-vocals-without-the-jokes.” Meanwhile at The Watermill, musical theatre housecomposer and actor Sharon Hewson and poet Will Gompertz presented My Foxkin, an elaborate true story of a pagan storyteller. The brilliance of Soil O’ Ashes is that it resists the urge to have its satirical teeth nipped.

A Club for Aerialists and Clowns Move to Manhattan. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

But if London Laughs was a showcase for the best of young UK comedy talent, it was also ground zero for the development of young theatre talent. The show I loved most was A Club for Aerialists and Clowns Move to Manhattan by the talented trio A GOB. There was the young performer and narrator Daniel X and his non-verbal storytelling, topped by Brooklyn Circus of Protegeers, who performed a disorientating piece that looped around the blurred faces of its participants as they descended a moving platform.

The three Circa and Sliced @ the Apollo teams will hopefully be raising the profile of this kind of show. We’ll need more of it to keep introducing younger people to theatrical improv, gifted show-tunes and performance poetry.

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