Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Sam Wills, as The Boy With Tape On His Face manages to make essential audience-participation comedy out of variety entertainment. Far more than the gimmick.
The Boy With Tape On His Face was a hit at last year’s Fringe. The New Zealand-born street performer had a brilliant year, being nominated for Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards and winning a Chortle award. Now he’s comfortably selling out the Pleasance Beyond, a venue somewhat oversized for his subtle variety shtick. Those who have seen the show last year seem to be coming back for another go, and they’ve brought their friends. The audience seem to be mainly made up of people in their forties and fifties (for example, sitting next to us were none other than Neil and Christine Hamilton). The Boy, sitting wide-eyed on a chair, looks on as the audience makes their way into the auditorium, sitting among several props, such as an obviously superfluous microphone stand. As the auditorium is full, the Boy leaves, to enter to thunderous applause and a warning to participate, or you will look a fool. This belligerent opening is, of course, part of the joke that Wills plays on his audience.
The content of the show is well executed but not all tricks are of the same high quality. The inspired ones make the show more than variety entertainment. The emphasis on magic and cabaret/variety stalwarts -most of you will have seen them before- dents the star rating slightly. Some pieces seem a bit self-indulgent – such as the singing bin, which unfortunately is not as awesome as it sounds.
The relationship he has with the audience is an odd one – and the most fascinating element of Wills’ act.. There’s certainly an element of stand-up to his act, benignly coercing his crowd into participation- not in thought processes, like Stewart Lee or Kitson- but in games. These games have the audience member momentarily take centre stage, whilst the Boy looks on in bemusement, ridicule or just scuffles off to prepare something. I’ve seldom seen a more high-status comedian than Wills. No-one is actually humiliated or ridiculed, but the Boy often comes close to that. Any walk-outs are stared off with incredulous anger, he gets annoyed with a faintly dispraxic elderly man during a dance-off and reacts to everything the crowd throws at him. But if the audience member performs the tasks the Boy laid out for them, he presents them for applause, which they duly receive from an enthusiastic Pleasance Beyond. Is it possible to be sarcastic without words? The Boy certainly succeeds in that. He toys with the crowd’s affections and manipulates them cleverly to great effect. The tricks and set-pieces Wills uses are sold to his audience from exactly this high-status position. When performing a trick, stage magicians tend to come closer to the audience, as if they were letting them into a secret, but the Boy keeps you waiting and lets you come to him. The reveals (or -if you will- punchlines) are never less than exciting
Wills’ face is fascinating, with the lower half of his head obscured by gaffer, he looks half his actual age. This endears the audience to the puppy-eyed man, who on the whole, follow all of the Boy’s ideas willingly. This unfortunatly also means that Wills won’t be able to do The Boy for the rest of his life, for age will catch up with him (sorry to break the news). But The Boy as an act is definitely not yet where it might be in several years time, since Wills could make the Boy’s unique brand of silent sarcasm even more interesting.
This show is the same as last year’s, with Wills doing a few previews of next year’s all new hour (including one at the Pleasance today on the 20th of August). Could he improve on his audience-baiting skills and toy with their affections even more, include some form of narrative and still leave that tape firmly on his face? Of course he will, but not this year. The Boy With Tape On His Face in 2011 is often beautiful, intelligent, interesting and highly recommended. Even if you don’t like audience participation, go and see the Boy, and be enchanted – but sit somewhere in the middle.