Sunday, October 2

‘Sketch will never die!’: Edinburgh fringe super troupes Tarot, Sheeps and Britney | edinburgh festival 2022


EITHERne of the pleasures of the fringe is checking in with standups as they first emerge, then break through, then revisit as household names. With sketch troupes: not so much. It feels like a long time since the likes of The League of Gentlemen springboarded from Edinburgh glory to TV fame. TV sketch shows are now skeletally thin on the ground. That’s part of the joke when fringe regulars Tarot take to the stage in their late-night slot, sending up their fidelity to sketch comedy (“not funny enough for standup, not boring enough for acting”) even while well into their 30s. “Sketch,” according to their new catchphrase, “will never die!”

Their latest show, Cautionary Tales, is another cracker for fans of the trio’s queasy, horror-infused comedy, which wastes nothing on scene-setting, far less set-dressing, but cuts straight to the oblique, disreputable – and always brilliantly performed – chase. Over and above the ironic apologia for sketch that frames the show, they’ve a terrific device at play this year, which is to ask an audience member to tally every single laugh they receive. As if first-performer-among-equals Ed Easton needed anything else to be highly strung about: he monitors the monitor skittishly for the rest of the show. It ca n’t be an easy job: by the time Easton appears on stage as the Creature from the Black Lagoon halfway through a preposterous sketch about a Dracula-themed tourist attraction (no spoilers, but his entrance from him ups the comic before by some margin), the room is in hysterics. Whoever’s totting up the laughs, their clipboard must be on fire.

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Sheepish … Alastair Roberts, Liam Williams, Daran Johnson. Photographer: Tom Kingsley

Tarot have a BBC Radio 4 show, Soundbleed, but their talent, which is considerable, has yet to find a TV outlet. Will it ever? The rapturous reception afforded to Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave has yet to usher in a new sketch-on-telly golden age. Another outfit who, in another age, would surely have taken their act to the small screen is Sheeps. Individually, two of the trio (Liam Williams and Al Roberts) are seldom off the box. But there’s something particularly sublime about their teamwork, live on stage, with Daran Johnson more than making up the numbers.

Their 2022 show is a tongue-in-cheek greatest hits commemorating 10, or is it 12, years on the fringe. I’m a full-blown Sheeps fanboy: I could watch them sing their tunnelless opening number, a self-mocking showbiz concoction in Poundshop top hat and tails, for hours. If these sketches never made it into your front room (although they came close, with 2015’s People Time pilot), they richly reward a second live viewing. And that’s just those I’ve seen before: the one starring Williams as an in-house riddler at a trendy tech startup; the one in which the citizens of war-torn Aleppo spare a thought for we put-upon Brits.

Britney … l to r, Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson.
Charlie Clive and Ellen Robertson aka Britney. Photographer: Linda Blacker

Of the sketches that were new to me, or new entirely, some sparkle still brighter. As the trio stage internal arguments and fret over the appropriateness to our new woke era – ho ho – of their older material, we’re treated to a joyously silly number about where Björn Ulvaeus gets his tunes from, and another Escher-like construction ( shades of their sketch contemporaries The Pin, here) in which Williams, Roberts and Johnson upbraid one another (spontaneously? or not?) for forgetting their lines. Dazzlingstuff.

Another act who got as far as a BBC pilot – albeit not with a sketch show – is Britney, AKA Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson. Their new suite of sketches and chat, Friends and Nothing More, passes a thoroughly enjoyable hour while we wait, possibly in vain, for a full series. The conception here, tenuously enough, is that they want us to fall in love with them. Marry them, even: isn’t that what women of their age are supposed to be looking for? But really, the key relationship here is their own, as childhood friends who re-enact for us tonight their first sketch performance, at school in 2009.

It went wrong, as you’d expect: Clive and Robertson are lovable dorks, whose gigglesome chat hogs as much of the show as the sketches themselves. Those sketches (one imagining Facebook as a wild west ghost town; another drilling down into Stephen King’s claim that he writes mainly for his wife) lead us towards a reckoning with their onstage crash-and-burn 13 years ago. There’s the occasional throwaway number here. One sometimes waits in vain for the type of pull-back-and-reveal at which Tarot excel, making sudden sense of hitherto pointless behaviour. But Britney remains an act that is very easy to enjoy. It may be on its knees as a TV genre, but on the evidence of these shows – and lovely work elsewhere on the fringe by Shelf, Crizards and others – live sketch is surely, as per Tarot’s refrain, indomitable.


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