Edinburgh Fringe 2010
Being proven wrong is one of the great pleasures of the Edinburgh Fringe. Five minutes in to this Cambridge University Roman romp I thought I was going to hate it. Then I loved it. It is a resolutely, unashamedly student show which is a cut above what that most reviled phrase usually implies. Tightly written, exuberantly directed and energetically performed it deserves to be seen as a benchmark for student comedy this year.
Set many years BC, Octavius has just changed his name to Augustus. We meet two slaves, Tom Pye’s boyish Clemens (an extraordinary bastard child of Rowan Atkinson and Charles Hawtrey) and Tom England’s hairy Grumio. Their double act elicits most of the show’s best material. Meanwhile their boss has just brought in pretty boy Quintus (Jonathan Cordin) who by accident finds himself in bed with the Emperor’s daughter, sexy Melissa (Lucy Shorthouse). A Pythonesque farce ensues.
It’s a funny story but it’s the treatment that makes writer/director Rob Thorman’s achievement so outstanding. Dropping contemporary music into an ancient story isn’t a new idea, but not many would have a costumed band of brass players to accompany big dance numbers (spectacularly choreographed by Jennie Dunn). There is a restrained seasoning of self-referential lines: “what the hell was that?” someone asks after a rap number; Clemens’ latin joke gets him a telling off for his reversion to “elitist comedy”. And there are great one-liners, mostly from Grumio who tells his chum that “the definition of beauty is something a man wants to destroy with his penis”.
The genius of the Cambridge Fools’ work here is that it isn’t trying to pretend they are professionals or demonstrate their intellects; it’s trying to put on the best possible show for the widest possible audience. It takes the details as seriously as the big ideas. There are other student companies in Edinburgh that could learn from their ambitious example. (I know. I’ve seen a few of them this year.)
It is telling that the few weaker moments in the show are where the story takes a back seat or a moment is indulged longer than needed- a ballad midway through and an over-extended finale misjudge the momentum their own precision has created and the show ends with less of a wow than expected. But who cares in the presence of such merciless merriment.
For the most part the audience was not so much lapping it up as bathing in it – no mean feat given the appalling sight-lines of the venue and the tiny stage onto which the company has to squeeze. For all the brilliance of the cast it’s Rob Thorman who marks himself out as the one to watch.
When in Rome is a classy Roman romp. Lend it your ears.