Horse Passports at Sketch Off 2023

Webster’s dictionary defines Sketch Off as Leicester Square Theatre’s yearly showcase for up and coming sketch and character acts.

Anyone who has attended as a punter knows that this is a *very* loose definition. People doing straight up stand up dominate a lot of these heats, to the general chagrin of sketch acts on the bill.

Ah well. Myself and my fellow Next Level Sketch producers, Nadine and Paul, entered anyway, as our alter-ego Horse Passports.

We did not expect to win, but we did hope it would at least provide a useful networking opportunity.

This was to prove correct. Within five minutes of arriving I met a delightful dog called Basil.

Basil.

Basil was being looked after by the organiser, knows a cool trick where he jumps through your arm if you loop it out like a teacup handle, and will return to our story later.

The heats take place as the gorgeous Museum of Comedy in Holborn, one of the best, friendliest, and most beautiful comedy venues in London.

The staff are really good at their jobs, they clearly care about putting on interesting stuff, and they are dog friendly. I have no notes.

I arrived before my fellow producers, and stood by the fire escape going over my intro. I had decided to do it in the style of a preposterous French character, who flowed directly from a beret that had come into my possession.

The central joke was a bit niche – he had mixed up legendary clown Philippe Gaulier with fashion designer Jean-Paul Gautier – but, I thought, if it was going to work anywhere, it was going to work here.

Backstage. Note the Medico poster.

Nadine arrived and I tried it out on her, and she liked it. Paul arrived a bit late [1] and so had to be filled in at the last minute, which is entirely on him and was in no way my fault for only coming up with the intro the day before.

We drew lots to decide the order with the other acts. Mysteriously the vaguely well known stand up who has been doing the same act since 2019 came out as going on last. We were the penultimate act.

I enjoyed the other performers, in the main. Cow Tools, here performing under a pseudonym, have performed at one of our shows before, and I enjoy their Trevor and Simon energy and incorporation of their own bad reviews into the show.

Fellow NLS guest star alumni Steppendads were also very enjoyable – well honed, very loose, and closest in spirit to alternative telly double acts of the early nineties of all the acts on the bill.

There was also a sketch duo of EXTREMELY young men in sixth form blazers (Simon and Joe). They claimed to be at university and had a whiff of footlights about them, and were very friendly and self-deprecating backstage.

Their set was one long sketch on The Crown, which wasn’t interesting to me as I’m not interested in the royal family, but definitely has potential.

The rest of the acts were character acts or stand up. Ben Gosling pretended to be an uptight tour guide, Jiminy H. Criquet was excellent, playing a really well observed tech bro character, part Tate, part Musk, fully, terrifyingly believable.

Carole Shaw sailed close to the line with some stereotypical observations. And NLS’s own Darren Ely was brilliant – playing three separate characters, all who introduced each other winningly, and doing things with a blow-up cutlass that have never been done before.

Darren in my beret.

I was mentally rewriting my intro during the other acts, as we had slightly more time to play with than I realised, and I suddenly realised that a fun conceit would be that we were French comedians trying to do “English style” sketch – particularly as the sketches chosen had a certain societal awkwardness theme running through it like letters in a stick of Brighton rock.

The idea was to get at least one laugh before we started our sketches, and I think I got two. The Jean Paul Gautier line worked, as did the implication that all sketch groups in France are lovers. In the end, I’m not sure it mattered if people knew who Gaulier is.

I also remembered to give the setting for the first sketch – “an awkward English place, the multiplex”, and I went behind the curtain while Paul and Nadine did my Superheroes / Ken Loach sketch. It got some decent laughs – particularly for 2UniversalCredit 2Furious, which is gratifying, as it’s my favourite line – and then I came back out, still in French character, to introduce New Car Chat.

My character’s transition from French to stereotypical lad bloke accent got a laugh – another bonus! – and this sketch also worked well, though I am eternally on the cusp of messing it up. But there’s something nice about being a runaway train on stage sometimes – as long as you’ve got a sympathetic scene partner (sorry again, Paul).

Nadine, also French for continuity purposes, introduced our last sketch, Forest Trickster, and IMHO the strongest of the three.

There was some slight hesitation in setting up Paul’s unexpected profession, but we got there in the end, and the sketch went brilliantly…

Until.

Here in the narrative Basil reappears.

The sketch ends with Nadine’s character running off stage in terror, which startled the dog, hitherto chilling at the back of the room, enough for him to run up to Nadine and bark at her before she had a chance to return to the stage and thank the audience.

A few seconds of chaos ensued, during which I reminded the audience that the French for dog is chien, and then it was all over.

We did not win [2]. Comedy is extremely subjective, but from my on-stage perspective, I am not surprised by this. I’d say there were four acts funnier than us, and both acts who went through got excellent responses from the audience.

But I take good things from it. Almost entirely non-rehearsed, and living in different cities, we more than held our own against sketch acts who were as tight and anything, and have been performing the same material over and over again.

I did some light networking after the show, and the audience gave us some lovely compliments about our jokes and the convincingness or otherwise of our French accents.

Thanks so much to Nadine and Paul for being such excellent Sketch comrades. Horse passports shall ride again.

Horse Passports.

[1] Four minutes late.

[2] Though we may still go through – 2 go through straight away, and a third is sometimes picked later.

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