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Arts Revue: Enjoyable but ultimately disposable

Jonathan Parker felt like he watched Arts Revue from the inside of a bong.

Fragmentation is a prerequisite of sketch comedy and consequently, certain sketches are invariably better than others. However, with an audience conditioned to laugh at even the most derivative observation, the true value of each individual skit is obfuscated. In this year’s Arts Revue, individually many of the sketches fall flat, extrapolating their one-joke premises for longer than needed.

The revue began warily. The rock band’s prelude fell into unintentional syncopation (perhaps due to the lack of conductor). Then came the exorbitant use of the smoke machine, which gave the impression I was watching the performance inside a bong.

The first act suffers from predictability. Almost every sketch is structured in an identical way: with a relentless and tepidly uncontroversial reductio ad absurdum. Indeed, a vignette involving a group of young men speculating that their friend Miles, who they haven’t seen in 45 minutes, is dead plays out like a banal and overly long Monty Python bit. Consequently, the sketches that succeed are very short, like the brisk but clever skit about Michelangelo’s erroneous painting of the Sistine Chapel.

A heightened sense of minimalism may have provided the revue its desired sense of coherence, rather than having to rely on the trite and humourless interactions between an old dream scientist and a young girl. The eponymous ‘dream factory’ motif only gives the show a tangential and insincerely sentimental semblance of cohesion.

As a result, the minimalistic sketches were effectively absurdist and amusing, especially those in which a single performer looks to be suffering from a psychological breakdown on stage (though the psychotic monologue of a prawn seemed directly plagiarised from the first season of The Gruen Transfer). This speaks to the consistently committed and engaging performances by the entire cast.

Admittedly, the second act is vastly funnier than the first, probably because the sketches themselves are shorter. Clever inversions of pop cultural iconography, particularly of Batman and Scooby-Doo, are worth the price of admission alone. Yet this act suffers from the same shortcomings that plagued its predecessor. The musical segments are undermined by backgrounded subtitles, which spoil the joke’s punchline before the performers have sung the line. Other segments tack on an unnecessary denouement after the punchline, causing the entire sketch to deflate. Worst of all, sketches that would have worked brilliantly without dialogue are ruined by the use of invective as a punchline – a performer yelling, “fuck”, as though that inherently adds mirth, cheapens a terrific play on Where’s Wally.

This year’s Arts Revue contains plenty of ideas, but they are too frequently undermined by poor decision-making in the writer’s room. It is enjoyable but ultimately disposable. Decidedly politically correct, the show is neither ironic nor sincere; neither optimistic nor pessimistic; neither humanistic nor misanthropic.

Image: Ben Blythe.

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