The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world, serving up a plethora of entertainment in the form of theatre, comedy, dance and everything in between. One of the most prominent forms at the Fringe, steeped in comedy tradition yet constantly growing and expanding, is sketch comedy. With new acts coming up all the time there is one duo truly holding its own – or possibly each other’s – and growing a dedicated following. With its new show, Going Straight, heading to Edinburgh at the end of July, Guilt and Shame is hitting the Fringe. And it’s going to be big.
This is its fourth year performing at the Fringe. Guilt and Shame is Rob Cawsey and Gabe Bisset-Smith, who met at drama school and decided that they were having too much of a good time to keep it to themselves. Chatting to Cawsey over a beer in London, he explained “We became friends because Gabe was always trying to sleep with all of my female friends… we started partying a lot together and decided ‘why don’t we put this on stage?’.” This basis for the act has lead to the boys taking a lot of influence from their own lives for the shows, with Cawsey saying “we were going out and partying a lot, so we made a show that was a hangover-style piecing together of the night before”.
With last year’s show Addicted To Everything having the theme of trying to quit, and this year’s title of Going Straight, I wonder whether the duo are losing their party animal spirit? Cawsey straightened this out for me: “Now we’re at the stage of our lives when we’re starting to think about calming down a bit, and that’s why our show last year was about trying to quit. This year, Gabe has invented a cult religion based on the teachings of Jeremy Clarkson and he’s blaming everything on the fact Rob’s character is gay, so the basis of the show is him trying to convert Rob… I’d like to say it’s a slight over exaggeration of who we are. Actually it’s probably exactly who we are.”
Part of Guilt and Shame’s appeal is the large scale of its shows, with rave strobes, pumping music and voiceovers to complement the onstage melee. The subject matter plays wonderfully alongside this, often looking at incredibly personal issues and shouting about them. Loudly. Cawsey explained that “It’s what excites us. Bold issues about sex are what interest us”. And unlike a number of similar shows at the Fringe which work on shock value alone, Cawsey insists that the pair have “never written something to shock, it is just what comes out of our disgusting mouths. We definitely don’t sit down and say ‘what is shocking’?”
The theme of this years show centres largely around homophobia and the religious idea of gay conversion. Guilt and Shame “deals with gay issues a lot; gay issues are something we are really interested in. Obviously there have been sexuality things between double acts before, but we just thought no one has ever really addressed it. It’s something we really wanted to bring to the forefront of what we do – a gay guy and a straight guy being friends”. And while the more controversial elements of their performances can receive mixed audience reactions, these can also bring about some of the best moments of comedy and theatre,with Cawsey confiding “I imagine you only get those kinds of moments if you are doing slightly controversial material rather than if you are playing the safe card”.
While Guilt and Shame’s material feels like a sketch show at heart, the difference with this twosome, and a trend that is beginning to show across the genre, is the strong narrative which underpins the scenes and skits of the hour-long comedy. Reasoning that “I like to see something more in a sketch show”, Cawsey explained that for Guilt and Shame “with Gabe being a playwright as well, narrative and structure is something that has always interested us a bit more, and we’ve always found that more engaging than to just write random sketches back to back”. It’s not only Guilt and Shame which has felt this, as the narrative sketch format seems to be becoming a performance standard with other popular Fringe groups, such as Cambridge Footlights, BEASTS, and Max and Ivan.
With the television sketch shows of the noughties (such as Little Britain, Catherine Tate and Big Train to name but a few) having died out, most likely due to budgetary impracticality and dwindling audience numbers, sketch now thrives in live shows, and the narrative base is becoming more and more popular with comedians and performers. Going Straight focuses more on the narrative strand of sketch as Cawsey explains, quite simply, “it hangs together more”. Using a narrative gives the audience something to follow through a piece and creates a story while often enhancing the comedy of a show. And who doesn’t love a good story? Especially when it’s about cults.
Having found enough success to return to the Fringe more times than many others, Guilt and Shame has found impressive fame in Edinburgh, and I asked Cawsey what he thought had got them to the prime time slot for this year’s festival (9.30pm, the Holy Grail of programming): “I guess just sticking to what we find funny, and not trying to conform to what other people are finding funny or not trying to write what the critics will find funny. Just sticking to your guns… but we probably haven’t done that at all.”
Going Straight is at the Leicester Square Theatre, London on 21 July at 10pm and then at the Edinburgh Fringe at Underbelly Cowgate, 9.30pm, 31 July to 24 August (not 13 August). For more information and tickets, visit the EdFringe website.