Brighton Festival 2018
Finnemore was joined by his regular BBC Radio 4 Souvenir Programme cast of Lawry Levin, Margaret Cabourn-Smith, Simon Kane and Carrie Quinlan in a series of routines, skits and comedic asides.
The staging was minimalist (5 chairs that were constantly regrouped in different scenes) a couple of stand-up mics and a large screen for a few interactive visual skits.
There is no doubting that John Finnemore is a talented comedy writer for radio. Four series of the exceptional Cabin Pressure and seven series of John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme on Radio 4 have proved that. But stage shows are a very different beast. Apart from a few visual screen gags and a small bit of physical theatre, in a very predictable skit about goldfish memory, the whole performance felt too static and as if watching a radio show recording. Finnemore’s writing relies on absurdity and clever word play, which don’t translate well into a visually entrancing performance. However the audience participation involving a skit about Pavlov’s dogs, which utilised the big screen, went down well.
Stand-out routines were the Winnie the Pooh honey addict intervention, an overzealous otter sanctuary, an audio gag about radio weather reports and a reoccurring sketch about God’s Animal Creation Department. Unfortunately, based on this show and substantial listening to his Souvenir Programme radio series, Finnemore frequently doesn’t know how to finish a sketch. Far too often the point is either laboured, or it simply peters out, lacking any sort of punchline or conclusion, which is a shame, because very often the initial concepts are quite solid.
The second half was weaker and, while there were some amusing local nods to Brighton, the show is hardly original or adventurous. In fact the vast portion of sketches had already been performed on the radio, rather than relying on new material. Finnemore was playing to the crowd, and fans were undoubtedly delighted, but those unfamiliar with his work would’ve found the disproportionate amount of self-referentialism off-putting and frankly baffling—for example, the entire mock interview with Finnemore’s character Arthur Shappey from Cabin Pressure was rendered meaningless to some of the unwitting audience.
In fact the whole thing felt very white, safe and middle class—just like the audience of families and OAPs—even descending into Panto towards the end, complete with sing-a-long lyrics about Brighton.
The material was more akin to Finnemore’s training ground of Cambridge Footlights than anything innovative, and one got the feeling that his writing, unlike that of the likes of Fry & Laurie, has yet to mature beyond this point. This isn’t the future of comedy, but rather—in the same vein as Michael McIntyre—a nostalgic throwback to the “good old days” before all that “alternative comedy” came along and made everything “PC,” “sweary” and, well, just a bit “awkward.” It’s a lovely cup of tea on a fresh cut lawn in high summer. A warm, cosy bath to sink into. You won’t be challenged, but you’ll politely laugh along anyway.
But its flabby and starts to drag at three hours long. A tighter show, at half the length, would be twice the fun.
(Guest reviewed by Tim Pilcher)