If a quasi-impressive amateur gymnastics display/mock physical theatre routine/confusing love triangle told through the medium of expressive dance (performed with almost deadly seriousness) doesn’t make a good opening to a comedy show, I don’t know what does. Though relatively new on the scene, having formed only this year, this trio of Beasts (Owen Roberts, James McNicholas and Ciaran Dowd) are certainly onto a winner with their sharp and subtly dark sketch show that combines clever linguistic playfulness, shrewd observation and a hefty dose of sometimes sinister surrealism to create an assured and exciting debut.
From the off, there is a noticeably affectionate preoccupation with the ridiculous creations of childhood and Beasts excels at the delightfully wry dissection of them. Highlights include the Easter Bunny put under some laughably inexpert interrogation and Where’s Spot the Dog? read to us by a man who is genuinely and deeply concerned by the question. A personal favourite was the pitch for a slightly less child-friendly book character, Billy the Elephant – one that is reluctantly received by the initially interested publishers because, unfortunately, the common conclusion of all Billy’s jolly jaunts is that he dies. Making the best of it, the publishers make a few optimistic suggestions – maybe there’s an elephant heaven! The hope of better life? “No. There’s nothing.” the author retorts.
This so-dark-I-am-basically-laughing-to-conceal-my-unease style of comedy works well alongside a diverse range of playful and zany episodes. An enjoyably pedantic examination of the correct positioning of digestives is played out to perfection by the three performers. Is it chocolate-side up? Or chocolate-side down? But what about the writing? I don’t know! Find Beasts and make them perform it for you, it’s well worth the effort.
The show works because it consistently plays off the strengths of the trio, with the endearingly absurd Owen Roberts, earnest foil Ciaran Down and the often scene-stealing James McNicholas (who has a prodigious talent for playing the socially-decrepit and downright creepy) each bringing their own strengths to the already plentiful table. Slightly less successful are the instances where sketches are ‘interrupted’ by the performers playing themselves, where an over-stretched joke about jokes shows Beasts being a little too clever for their own good. Ultimately, however, this is an engrossing and accomplished show, uniquely attuned to the absurdity of everyday life. There is an enjoyable roundedness to the whole thing, as Beasts ends with a rewarding revisit of its characters that feels like a reunion with old and slightly frightening friends, many of whom I sincerely hope to bump into again.
**** – 4/5 stars
Beasts played at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.