If you ever forget why it is that everyone has heard of the Cambridge Footlights, Dressing Down will remind you. Indeed, this production from the former and current presidents of the renowned university troupe deserves a firm place in the long-esteemed history of Fry, Laurie, Mitchell and Webb. While the sketch-show format is a notoriously difficult one to incorporate any sense of narrative coherence – without which an hour of unrelated skits could all blend into a mere amusing mush – Dressing Down not only provides a story behind their journey through costumes, but a charming one at that. The show opens with the premise of the Magic Wardrobe, ‘the central conceit, wink wink’, that sends the performers spinning through a vortex of time and garments. This establishes the challenge of sixty costumes in sixty minutes, and I have to say, watching Harry Michell attempt to fit an astronaut outfit over a mermaid shell-bra within ten seconds had us all in stitches.
The sketches are perfectly silly and intelligent in equal measure. Gifted and astute wordplay lends depth to utterly ridiculous costumes, with highlights including the Leviticus-inspired game-show, the ‘Smitening Round’, and an execution skit underlining the comic absurdity of retail training days. Watching two grown men edge their way towards each other with cardboard snail-shells on their backs is amusing in itself, but extending the scenario to a comment on gay rights is genius. They even seemed to tread new ground in one skit about a German science experiment, seeking to find the secret of comedy; by using our laughs as their barometer, the self-awareness added something different to the sometimes tired sketch-show format. Throughout, voiceovers were also spliced in to keep it fresh and considering the hurtling speed of the costume changes, the production was exceedingly polished.
There were, of course, a couple of inevitable mishaps, such as slipping crop tops and lingering red noses, but it only provided more space for their natural wit and confidence to shine. While the comedians each had a lengthy roster of various personae, they also had their own distinctive strengths and styles. By the end, I felt initiated into the Magic Wardrobe world, in tune to a very special dynamic. Indeed, on the odd occasion that they momentarily broke character to giggle at each other, you got a sense of genuine friendship that makes you go, ‘Oh, you guys’. Keep an eye out for Alex Mackeith, Harry Michell and Ben Pope; they’ll be gracing our screens (and Radio 4 programmes) in no time.