Freshwoman

Tue 14th – Sat 18th February 2012

reviews

Richard Nias

at 23:57 on 14th Feb 2012

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The Imps are pretty good at making things up as they go along. You may be surprised to learn this, but it turns out they're also pretty good at making things up, writing them down in script form, and rehearsing the said script before performing it in front of a packed audience at the Burton Taylor, as clearly demonstrated by the resounding success that is "Freshwoman", with a cast and writing team consisting nearly entirely of Imps.

Billed as a sketch show, it's perhaps more accurate to describe Freshwoman as a comedy play with the occasional improvised interlude. There are some scenes which could clearly work in a sketch show context: viz. the dinner party, at which the out of touch Oxford don only hears words as Oxford colleges ("would you like an Oreo?" "ORIEL"), culminating in a too easy jab at one of the lesser colleges. However, the show's narrative tells the story of Mathilde du Belle (Erin Simmons), an American South girl who dreams of studying at Oxford and finding a man to pull her family from poverty. Along the way, Tom Skelton (star and writer) sends up 1920s Oxford (which is eerily similar to 2010s Oxford), the Union, Camera and those cool drug fuelled parties that I never get invited to.

It's hard to describe just how funny the best moments were. Whether it was the drugs song ("Woaahhhhhhhhh drugs... do them in the rad cam") or Neal Seashore's Captain Flash impersonation, or perhaps what was simply the funniest on stage sex scene you will ever hear, the natural comic talent of the cast shines through the equally excellent script to create an unbeatable hour of comedy. The cast have what all comic actors should aspire to - the Rowan Atkinson-esque ability to make ordinary words and sentences sound funny. Lucy Shenton's Matriculation speech is a particularly good example.

This is an "Oh, look, we're at Oxford, let's make jokes about it" type of play. It's worth asking, therefore, what makes this different from all the rest - because it is. This could easily go to the fringe, perhaps with the occasional TSK reference rewritten. The script helps a lot: Oxford is mocked as much as it is in the national media, something similar could have been written by anyone. Saying that, it's undoubtedly funnier to Oxford students for being written by fellow students, thanks to all the knowing winks to the Union's status as "the last bastion of free speech" (Ha). The aforementioned comic talent of the cast also help to make everyone forget that they are watching what possibly could be a pretentious play about a pretentious place. But as it happens, the play comes across as an excellent piece of student comedy, without all the baggage of being exclusively for Oxford students.

If I had one gripe, it would be that in the final scene it suddenly felt like it was quarter to ten on a Monday in the Wheatsheaf, as we were asked to come up with suggestions for the final chapter of the play. As much as I love seeing the Imps, I go to that show expecting to see improvised comedy. After such well written sketches, this scene felt like a bit of a letdown. However, it was still very funny (Neal Seashore pulled out some incredible knowledge about the Ashmolean) and, as a fellow audience member pointed out, a written ending could have been an even bigger let down to what was, all in all, the funniest hour I've spent in a while.

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Camilla Turner

at 01:27 on 15th Feb 2012

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In the intimate space of the Burton Taylor studio, the play opens with a man frantically scribbling away while muttering nonsense, swaying and twitching in rhythm with the music. The audience are quickly propelled into deep southern America, where Mathile du Belle attempts to persuade her eccentric parents to allow her to study at Oxford. Eventually they concede, if only on the grounds that she may go in order to find a rich husband. This scene very much sets the tone for the show: lighthearted, slapstick, and somewhat frenzied. From here on, the play takes place in the typical array of Oxford scenarios: a dinner party, an interview, matriculation, a debate at the Union, a string of disastrous dinner dates, and a tutorial. A blend of Oxford stereotypes and clichés pepper the show, some funny, some predictable.

Freshwoman highlights the eccentricities of Oxford’s academic debates, with two professors endlessly arguing over whether everything is sexual, or political. Oxford-based romantic ventures are also depicted as outlandish and unpredictable: Mathilde’s dates with both the proposition and the opposition of the Union debate are pretty dire, but a late night “extra tutorial” with her professor goes swimmingly to say the least. But, reading the show as a commentary on the absurdity of Oxford’s intellectual and romantic pursuits these would probably be a case of over-analysis. The eccentricity of the characters, with their booming voices and theatrical flair, captivates the audience, with plot subtlety and complexities taking something of a backseat.

Actors make good use of the space, allowing the audience to be always thoroughly engaged with the action, regardless of where it took place on the stage. The show undoubtedly gained pace when the actors – some of whom are notorious Oxford Imps - began to improvise, giving the performance a fresh air of spontaneity and wit. Especially effective was the degree of audience involvement, with the scriptwriter asking for the audience’s participation in coming up with location of the closing scene of the show. "Freshwoman" offers an evening of light entertainment, and is a good way to and laugh away your fifth week blues.

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