Edinburgh Fringe 2009
Fringe favourites The Penny Dreadfuls return with a ‘comedy thriller’ set on the sinister Beef Island, where all is not what it seems at a theme park opening. The material is sketchy and a little shambolic, but the trio of actors are slick and seriously skilful at bouncing off one another. However, after the huge hype that surrounded previous performances, The Never Man struggles to live up to high expectations.
The Penny Dreadfuls arrive at the 2009 fringe with an absolute galaxy of stars to their name. Their Victorian comedy trilogy Aeneas Faversham was a Fringe sell-out three years running, delighted the critics, and ensured The Penny Dreadfuls have become very hot tickets indeed. For the first time audience member, this perhaps provided a burden of seriously weighty expectations – and while The Never Man was certainly enjoyable, it is (whisper it) hard to see quite what all the fuss is about.
Their first foray into more contemporary material, The Never Man lampoons Bond-style big budget movies, while remaining self-consciously low budget itself. Dr Loveable has built a bovine themed amusement park, Beef Island, as a cover-up for a mysterious laboratory, but when an ex-cop who smells something fishy (or should that be beefy?) teams up with a little eight-and-three-quarter-year old boy, they go on a mission to discover just what the dastardly doctor is making down there and – obviously – save the world.
It’s delightfully daft, and very deftly so – The Penny Dreadfuls’ material, although distinctly lo-fi and sketchy in style, is underpinned by smarter comedy and slicker handling than your average fringe show. They look like they’re having an awful lot of fun, and carry the audience with them, through truckloads of ad-libbing and corpsing which delighted the packed-out venue.
So far, so funny, yet I was expecting a little more from such a lauded company. The material was knowing and smart about what it was doing, but sending up movie clichés is not exactly fiercely original, and while there were plenty of laughs along the way, few were enduringly memorable. If you want to see a comedy sketch show at the Fringe, they will reliably provide a fun-filled hour, but it’s best to let fall all those five-star reviews fall from your eyes before you go in.