November 15, 2010

Frisky and Mannish, Warwick Arts Centre, 31st October

They lost me in the first ten minutes.

There’s something in comedy you have to do when playing clubs, or even the smaller rooms in Edinburgh. I call it establishing audience “buy-in”. Basically, you need to move the minds of the crowd from being a passive observer, asking themselves “will they be funny” to someone invested in the performance, by establishing rapport, getting them involved and re-framing their mindset so they’re thinking “this is funny, I’ll enjoy it”.

Frisky and Mannish have established a pretty good way of doing this: they do a bit of light audience interaction, some light mocking (which also establishes authority, important for managing more unruly crowds) and then they get everyone standing up and dancing. It’s good technique. Alas what works in other contexts is entirely inappropriate for dealing with a small, mostly sober crowd on a Sunday night in an arts centre.

See, when you’re playing a venue off the beaten track (Warwick University campus) you can be fairly sure that everyone their made the conscious decision to go and see you. It’s hugely unlikely to have been a spur of the moment thing, they’ve probably done some research, figured it’s something they’ll like, and so gone along. They’ve bought in already. Or at least they had, until you made them get up and dance.

Since the preceding opening number was decent but not brilliant, in the first ten minutes Frisky and Mannish basically throw out all the good will the audience came in to the show with. It’s to their credit, then, that by the end of the first half they’ve already won us all back around, to the point that one can’t help but wonder if they’re bored by everyone loving them and tanked the start on purpose to make it more interesting.

That overly rambling introduction hides the fact that Frisky and Mannish are a very difficult act to describe, and even more difficult to analyse. There are generally two types of musical comedy: the one where you write your own original comedy songs, and the type where you parody existing songs, generally by changing the lyrics. Except there’s barely a single original song in the whole show, nor do they ever change any lyrics to existing ones. Instead they draw comedy out from the music itself, playing with styles and forms to create something hilarious. The only comparison that I can think of is Bill Bailey. And that’s a ridiculous comparison as they’re nothing alike: Bailey’s deer-in-headlights confused-hippy performance style couldn’t be further from Frisky and Mannish’s assured self-confident delivery. But at a very high level, that notion of finding humour in music, rather than just ‘being funny with music’ is something they have in common.

And so they offer a wonderful couple of hours of musical manipulation. Noel Coward and Lily Allen sing each others songs. They explain how horror is the over-riding genre in pop music by showing just how sinister some songs become when done in a minor key. They entirely deconstruct Florence from Florence and the Machine beautifully. And when you least expect it, they’ll do a dance routine to B*Witched.

I can’t urge people to go and see this show enough really. It’s not for everyone. Indeed, watching it I was consciously aware that I had certain friends who would enjoy it a lot more than I did. But that’s down to my lack of knowledge of most music from the past ten years. Indeed, one could argue that musos would probably get more out of it than your average comedy fan. But for that average comedy fan it’s also a revelation, as it shows a due doing something that feels original, which is such a rarity in today’s comedy scene that it should be embraced whole-heartedly.

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