I have a soft spot for improv. Responding to all that’s said or thrown at you and creating engaging entertainment takes a certain mad chutzpah.
On the 80s TV show ‘Whose Line is it Anyway’, Josie Lawrence (pretty much the only female improv performer back then) was mesmerising with her left-field interpretations, ability to burst into song at any audience prompt and her super-malleable face which folded into an array of characters and scenarios.
Improv was vicious then and still is: fail to please your audience and they won’t be let you off because it’s hard, they’ll mock you for being crap.
Damp Knight Comedy first performed at Berwick’s Maltings venue in 2015. I was anxious for them Then, and for myself, the critic: if it all went wrong would I have to pretend they weren’t rubbish? In fact, they weren’t bad. Not bad at all. I’d even say they warmed my cockles (Berwick’s a seaside town which gave its name to the sweets, after all).
Since then, I’ve kept an eye on the Knights, in the way that a middle-aged woman likes to keep an eye on six or seven strapping young men. Members have come and gone, but the core group — David Simpson (aka Dimples), Mark Vevers, Neil Watson, Oliver Payn, Ross Graham and Paul Summers (keyboards) — remains the same.
They spark off one another in that knowing yet unpredictable way only comedians who trust each other can. Improv is raw and brutal – one small quirk of fate and a comedic moment will slip into an offensive disaster. This almost happened during their recent Da Vinci Toad show at the Maltings.
Oliver Payn was trapped into saying something truly awful: think your 80-year-old granny reading out the Cards Against Humanity card about oral sex. Only 100 times worse.
There was a stunned moment as Knights and audience metaphorically facepalmed. No one-liner could get past this monumental awkwardness. Then, as if spontaneously propelled by his own shock, Mark Vevers rocketed backwards over the sofa, which was what we had all wanted to do: hide behind the sofa until the awkwardness was over! And with that visceral, physical response Mark released performers and audience from the nightmare. Yes, it was edgy; it was also fine, undiluted improv which only skilled players can pull off.
Later, someone from the audience wrote on Facebook: “Have always really enjoyed Damp Knights’ shows but last week seemed to be at a whole new Pythonesque level.”
Indeed, the group has honed its craft since its early days. There have been more shows on home turf and, importantly, in the wide world: The Stand in Edinburgh and Newcastle, Alnwick Playhouse and The Record Factory in Glasgow. They work the audience well and largely avoid that group improv tendency to entertain each other instead of the spectators.
They’ve developed a strong and pleasingly broad group of prompts: from the ludicrous Dead Bodies, where one Knight is the only man standing in a sea of dead people and has to voice and manipulate them all, to the impressive Forward/Reverse where the Knights act out a scenario and are periodically instructed to play the whole thing in reverse and then forward again. It hits the funny-bone – how they manage to remember actions and words to keep replaying them is a mystery to those of us who can barely recall how to get to the shops and back.
Yes, there were a few glitches – some energy dippage in continuity between sketches. Maybe a new Knight might be the host? A couple of slightly lame sketches (I wasn’t a huge fan of their ‘We’re not doing the cheese shop sketch’ sketch, but that’s subjective). And why the punning name for the show if there’s no linking sketch? But these are miserly gripes. I heard grumbles about “too much swearing” and, yes, there’s a fair reliance on ‘knob’ gags. But, hey, this is improv, what do you expect? It’s not for children.
The Damp Knights deliver a good, adult night out served with an ample portion of laugh-out-louds, seasoned with guffaws and finished with a liberal dollop of titters. . . particularly if Dimples keeps wearing those jeans with the dodgy fly!
Find the Damp Knights on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.