The Two Faces of Mitchell and Webb
Translating a show from TV to stage is obviously a tricky business, and not something that should be done willy nilly. You need a large fan base, confidence with your existing material and plenty of new stuff chucked in for good measure if you want it to be viewed a success in the eyes of anyone with even the slightest of critical faculties.
Off the top of my head, the biggest and most successful TV to stage conversions of the past few years have been The Fast Show, The League of Gentlemen and Little Britain, all of which had built up huge followings through multiple TV series over a number of years. Now, after one series of a six part sketch show and mild notoriety through Channel 4’s Peep Show, the two faces of David Mitchell and Robert Webb have arrogantly assumed large groups of people want to see them on stage, but will their undeniable screen presence and solid reputation for being bloody funny really translate well, in front of a packed Brixton Academy? Well, hmm… I’m not entirely sure, really.
The tour smacks terribly of quite a rushed job. Almost as if it was suddenly dreamt up a few months ago, when it was made apparent that plenty of people liked That Mitchell and Webb Look. Of course, I have actually no idea when the decision was made to send them on a nationwide tour, but like I say it *feels* rushed, and that’s what’s bothering me. The date I attended, for example, was meant to be the first of three new dates added, due to popular demand. As it turned out, the final two dates were then canceled and everyone with tickets for those shows were given passage to the first night, instead. The reason given was “filming commitments” (which eventually turned out to be “attending the Comedy Awards commitments”), but it could very easily have a lot more to do with poor tickets sales for these extra shows. Now, considering these dates were added due to popular demand then *retracted* due to what many suspect to be… um… unpopular demand, smacks of bad, rushed organisation. The companion DVD has also turned out to be a huge disappointment, with its sloppy editing, mid-tour release date and total lack of extras practically screaming out “rush job”.
Of course, all of this would be completely and totally irrelevant if the show was brilliant. I couldn’t give two hoots if a show is a rushed afterthought if it blows my socks off, but I’m afraid I can’t make such a claim. Sure, it was good and sure Mitchell and Webb are undeniably consistent and funny performers, but the whole show just felt lacking.
The set dressing was beautiful in its simplicity, though; comprising of a number of movable panels dotted around, with the relevant set decoration actually drawn on using a projector and some rough animation. A lovely idea, but this was sadly obliterated the moment the lights come up on the sketch, and we lost the nice background drawings in the glare of the stage lights. The sketch transitions were probably one of the worst things about the whole show, but I fear this is more out of circumstance than genuine bad planning. With the previously mentioned stage shows (save Little Britain) you’ve got a far greater ensemble of performers, and arranging sketches in a way which facilitates costume changes and what-not must be relatively easy. The problem with M&W is that they’re the only real stars and the best sketches are almost always when they’re on stage together, so obviously transitioning from sketch to another with never having them in the same sketch was troublesome and noticeably clunky.
In order to get around this two techniques were used. Firstly, we were treated to clips taken (directly, I think) from their radio show That Mitchell and Webb Sound, as the stage and performers were frantically dressed. It was nice to hear some radio favourites, but I couldn’t help but think it was a bit of a cheap trick. Having said that, it was great to hear the trio of ‘Save the Mad Bears’ sketches with hundreds of other people. The second, and undeniably more shit, technique was to hand the stage over to co-performers James Bachman and Abigail Burdess for some light relief. The main problem with this was the material, which mainly consisted of the two playing ‘mock’ cheesy and shitty performers, with weak jokes and crap sketches. Now, call me unkind, but for the majority of the people there, this was probably a bit too close to the truth to be taken in the ironic fashion it was clearly intended. I’m a big fan of Bachman, and he’s a truly excellent supporting artist for M&W (in fact, he’s been their one performing constant throughout the radio, TV and stage shows) and he certainly didn’t fail to raise some smiles during these ‘Bachman and Burdess’ interludes. However, Abigail Burdess was shit. Really, awfully shit. Her ‘exaggerated’ and ‘intentional’ shitness really didn’t help matters, either, as she squawked her way through utterly dire attempts at being unfunny. If you catch my drift.
And it didn’t stop there, either. Burdess was consistently poor throughout the entire night, from her woeful overacting shrieking in her first sketch, right through to whatever the fuck her last sketch was (I honestly can’t remember as I must have blocked her stupid face and voice out by that point). It really is important you get a good clear picture of just how awfully shit this woman was. I suppose it didn’t really help matters that she was there to replace the completely delightful Olivia Coleman. No one was going to come out of this looking good, but Burdess didn’t even seem to be trying.
As you’d expect, M&W were good throughout with flashes of sublime wonderfulness dotted around. The first thing I noticed was that the material was disappointingly familiar, and at times it felt like I was watching two people trying to get tried and tested stuff done as quickly and efficiently as possible, rather than creating a genuinely unique atmosphere. Flights of fancy were few and far between, and the odd time we did get flashes of ad-libbing the audience reaction was noticeably better. The obvious example of this was the second ‘Big Talk’ sketch, in which Raymond Terrific marched into the audience to collect some questions for his boffins to answer. What followed was basically a David Mitchell showcase, and he was utterly brilliant. Bachman performed admirably, but I sensed Webb and Burdess were lost when they had no script to guide them from one joke to the next. Webb totally dropped the Raymond Terrific character when asking the questions and making the odd comment, and only picked it back up when the script quite jarringly kicked back in towards the end.
The second half was notably better than the first, and the improved audience reaction was obvious. A brand new Numberwang sketch proved to be the absolute highlight of the night for me, with Bachman on fine form and a brilliant variation on the “let’s spin the board” gag, with the presenter himself being spun round and Mitchell taking his place for the rest of the sketch. Numberwang continues to be a perfect example of how a running gag can be fresh, surprising and always funny, even when you’re dealing with essentially one joke.
One of the few new pieces of material brought another highlight, as Webb came on the stage to perform one of the most brilliant and perfectly executed pieces of physical comedy I’ve ever seen, with a fifteen second flash of mime. It’s hard to describe just how fantastic this was, so you’ll have to trust me on this. But, again, this just brings to light the disappointing fact that most of the material was repeated. True, there’ll always be fans who simply watch comedy so they can hear the same thing over and over again, but plenty of people appreciate new stuff and with a second series of TMAWL now in the making, you’d think there would be plenty of new ideas and sketches to draw on for the show. At times, the ruthlessly efficient drilling of well worn ideas and sketches just seems a tad… soulless.
Predictably, the show ended as the TV series did, with the special snooker version of ‘Lady in Red’ (Table of Reds) sung by the snooker commentators. It was considerably funnier seeing this live, and unless I’m hugely mistaken, we were treated to a few extra verses, which gave me one of the biggest laughs of the night (“You aaaare a table”). However, the snooker commentators themselves were my biggest bug bear with the whole thing, as they’re just so fucking boring. Each of the sketches could’ve been cut right in half, and most of the dialogue drags on well past, in some cases, perfect punch lines. It was good to see Sir Digby Chicken Caesar make and appearance, and it even better to see that the material had been nicely written to actually include the audience a little. It had an almost panto feel to it, and seeing Sir Digby and Ginger running around stage felt like a breath of fresh air, especially since their entrance heralded the end to yet another classic ‘Bachman and Burgess’ shitfest. Unfortunately, due to a completely baffling scene segue to a recorded segment and another sketch managed to completely step on any applause they might have received after the Sir Digby sketch had finished, which seemed like a particularly sloppy bit of direction.
However, it was a great night and a (mostly) great performance from (almost) everyone involved, and that can’t be ignored despite my almost constant bitching. The unavoidable feeling of a big nationwide tour finishing in the Brixton Academy being a year or so too early wont go away, though, and I think this show would’ve greatly benefited from a year’s extra material and a year’s extra breathing space for two performers that haven’t really had chance to properly bed in to the public consciousness.