This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
The House of Fun with Arthur Smith is a slight misnomer. It should, on reflection of its less-than-well-attended Oxford performance, be renamed ‘The House of Decidedly Variable but Ultimately Good-natured Comedy with Arthur Smith’. That said, for a show that it markets itself as something of a variety performance, it suits the label down to the ground: it undeniably has variety, but sadly it is both in content and quality.
Arthur Smith is certainly not as sharp or witty as the ideal host should be, but his relaxed South London drawl and self-deprecating attitude are nonetheless infectious. At times his material is as painfully hackneyed as a man run over by a London taxi, but his confidence and nonchalance are enough to achieve the primary aim of a compère – they relax the audience sufficiently for the succeeding acts.
Jo Sandelson is a painter, a cartoonist, an acclaimed illustrator and an award-nominated blogger. What she is not, is a stand-up comedian. She is polite, intelligent, articulate and charming, but has neither the confidence nor the wit to sustain any particularly raucous laughter. Her performance is an awkward, borderline embarrassing one for the audience; imagine your mother suddenly declaring herself a comic and forcing you to watch.
‘Rock and roll magician’ Pete Heat’s act is one brimming with potential. Full of visual gags (the use of a loaf of sliced bread instead of a pack of cards is particularly well conceived) and containing just the right amount of genuinely impressive magic to keep the audience wondering, his is a performance revolving around some extended bait-and-switch jokes that, with a little more polish and panache, could certainly prove highly entertaining.
All-female sketch duo Shirley and Shirley (Joanna Carolan and Pascale Wilson), on the other hand, are polished to the point of brilliance (barring one small technical setback during the beginning of their act). Their sketches are physically, vocally, and comedically dynamic and their performance is regrettably all too brief. A meeting of Kate and Pippa Middleton, in which caricatured Jamaican accents replaced quintessential upper-class ones, is arguably the highlight of the evening.
David Whitney’s stand-up is another high-point. Mixing a refreshingly casual brand of satire with some downright hilarious over-18 routines, his material is consistently crowd-pleasing, if at times a little too obviously rehearsed. By his own admission, he tailors his short set to suit the audience and on this occasion gradually approached more risqué jokes with an enjoyable frankness. It was a masterful piece of audience manipulation, and tactfully won their trust for the later, less child-friendly comedy.
Hal Cruttenden similarly impressed. Apparently trying out new material, he performed with an ease born of natural wit and raises easily the biggest laughs of the night. Making the most of his posh, educated accent, he plays upon class-based issues with an openness and honesty that endear him to the audience. His observations about the irritating narcissism endemic to society are particularly well delivered.
Musical interludes are provided by self-professed ‘gypsy punk lunatics’ Buffo’s Wake, whose idiosyncratic mix of traditional European folk with vibrant on-stage antics is, there’s no other word for it, weird.
On the whole though, The House Of Fun is a harmless evening of variable entertainment, and one which could quite easily be enjoyed if enough alcohol were to be consumed throughout.