REVIEW: Barber and Benson Sketch Show (Bread and Roses Theatre) ★★★

Faye Barber and Paula Benson exploded into the room on wooden-broom horseback, crying out with vigour as they galloped on to the stage, where they stood, engaged in a fight of gloves and wits, whilst insulting each other with politically-charged slurs. Meanwhile, we in the audience sat completely baffled but undeniably amused. Picture this: you had no idea what the heck is happening, but you kind of like it. Modern British comedy is more often than not predictably ‘safe’, engineered so as to rely on tried and tested methods of making the audience react, and rarely do comedians dare to take a risk on the absurd. Barber and Benson represent all that is giddy and silly – but with the caveat that they are actually highly trained actors, so there is method in their (potential…) madness.

We had presented to us an array of original characters, a mixture of age, geographical origin, gender and even of the bird variety. Two Scottish hens discuss their existence on the chicken farm, followed by two Elvis-obsessed builders sharing opinions on the Brexit vote. Watching the hens was delightfully uplifting; Barber and Benson, clad in red faceless balaclavas, gyrated across the stage in such absurdity that any age group would find themselves tickled with amusement. Equally, the builders’ sketch included a unique, football-motivated discussion into the merits of remaining in the EU. The show had just about the right amount of political reference in there to be intellectually stimulating, but not to an overbearing degree. An Antiques Roadshow-esque sketch was very well-received, with the quirky, studio characters eliciting barrels of laughs from the audience. They chose to end the show with a fast-retelling of series one of Game of Thrones, ducking and diving out of different costumes – this was inevitably lost on a few viewers, as it relies on a knowledge of the series, but nevertheless its sense of fun did its job on the non-fans.

Part of the appeal is the total lack of craps that Barber and Benson give; they are completely untethered in their pursuit of creating authentic and energised comedy that they fully believe in. I’d like to see more development on these characters; some have the potential to develop into sketch show royalty, but in places a few of the scripts go off-track and fall flatter than they deserve to. The trick with sketch shows is most certainly maintaining authenticity when switching between characters’ scenes. When the new character steps on, the previous one needs to disappear entirely from the stage, without any remnants leftover – Barber and Benson are good at drawing a line between acts, and there were no slips between the vastly different accents and movements they were employing.

It was refreshing to see a female comedy duo take to the stage with such self-assurance and vivacity. There is a strong sense of “if you don’t like us, that’s cool, but we like what we do” about Barber and Benson, the self-confidence that a lot of performers with less experience behind them do not have.

This isn’t vanilla comedy designed to be palatable to all. You preferably need to be clued up on popular culture and current affairs – they are purposefully current, whilst echoing a vintage French and Saunders – and open to eccentricity. The delivery, whilst I think purposefully haphazard, could do with further refinement. At the moment, the presentation is not quite the level of sophistication that it could be.

The potential for this duo to expand is strong; Barber and Benson are both immensely versatile and likeable as actors; relentlessly enthusiastic, and serve up vibrant and memorable characters. They work extremely well as a double-act, sharing the same sense of humour and artistic expression. They’ve got the USP: older ladies doing comedy (as they declare), and comedy certainly needs more unique acts like this.

Reviewed by Laura Evans