Londoners have a love-hate relationship with the tube. Not merely a means of getting from A to B the London Underground is an iconic part of the city’s culture and forms a large part of many city-dwellers lives. Contactless, a new comedy sketch show from Tom Hartwell, delves deep underground in order to explore how the numerous strands of society in London come together on the tube’s many lines, and how this network of tracks and tunnels shapes the everyday lives of the residents of the nation’s capital.
Sketch comedy has been dipping in and out of popularity over the past few years but Good One Theatre have shown that it is by no means an dying art form. Such shows are common sight at fringe festivals because of the ease with which writers can work collaboratively in creating a production, but Contactless demonstrates that there is an appetite for well-constructed sketch comedy outside of this usual environment: performing to a packed out audience in London’s Hen & Chickens Theatre. Mainstream shows such as Saturday Night Live highlight the potential for sketch comedy as a means of political dissent and satire and have become part of the fabric of popular late night televisual entertainment, but the form is still as suited to the stage as ever. With all of the scenes of Contactless occurring on the Underground itself or at various TFL offices this is a show that in a time of political division can unite its audience. Its overall tone has been well thought through and it is a consistent piece with a unified writing style and boundless energy throughout.
The opening sketch is one of the strongest in the show and gets the action off to a great start. Without any use of props for scenery, director Phil Croft manages to present a crammed tube carriage with only a cast of six huddling together in the middle of the stage. Rosie Edwards, Jeryl Burgess, Will Hartley, Stanton Cambridge, Adam Elliot and Hannah Jay make up a tight nit cast that flit seamlessly between roles. Will Hartley explains the sexual tension he is sure exists between him and a fellow regular commuter alongside Rosie Edwards’ rant about the troubles of living in Zone 9 (“yes it goes that far”). Hartley’s facial expressions are a standout in the production, and he uses them to full effect in this opening, especially when it is revealed he may have got a little too excited in his imaginings of a possible relationship with his fellow passenger and a certain part of his anatomy may be beginning to take up more space in the cramped carriage. This sketch really sets the tone for what is about to follow. Contactless is a light hearted show that could not fail to get even the most stoic Londoner to split a grin but it does air some of the real concerns and troubles facing Londoners today.
Sketch comedy at its most basic level is a series of short scenes that are sometimes connected, sometimes not, but seek to explore a situation, character, or concept. Despite its vaudeville origins British sketch comedy has clung onto a subtlety with an emphasis on script as much as physical humour. The British sketch scene really developed through a wave of tightly-written comedy from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, to A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie, and more recently That Mitchell and Webb Look, whereas our American counterparts have largely expanded sketch comedy from improvisation (this is obviously a generalisation, but I hope not an overly-stretched one). Writer Tom Hartwell has maintained this strong British tradition with Contactless in a considerate and researched series of witty sketches full of witty wordplay. The minimalistic set is comprised of the various colours of tube lines, created by coloured electrical tape, running across the set and the back curtain, a few black chairs, a table, and a microphone from which many of the announcements are made, placing the focus the actors and the script. This is a show that could be performed anywhere (although it makes most sense in London for obvious reasons) and this talented group are captivating in their utter simplicity.
While this is an incredibly funny show it draws out very poignant issues about the changes undergoing our society and the resulting human costs. Framing the show is the narrative surrounding the original recording of the “mind the gap” announcement, merging the stories of Peter Lodge (the sound engineer who unwittingly became the first person whose voice was used after the actor he had recorded demanded royalties for every time the recording was played) and Oswald Lawrence (one of the later voices to speak the famous three words, and whose recording was restored to Embankment station in 2013 so that his widow, who worked there, could hear his voice). Having this overarching story to drive what can sometimes feel like a disconnected group of sketches forward is both a difficult skill when writing and also appropriate for a piece that centres around the tube, and it has been done by Good One Theatre wonderfully with only two or three moments in the entire show seeming a little out of sync.
The emotional exploration of these characters allows the show to come full circle and feel suitably wrapped up in its conclusion. Jeryl Burgess performs the role of the wife of the recording artist who first gave voice to those iconic three words, and compellingly conveys her troubles working at Embankment Station as the world modernises around her and she is forced to adapt. Her scenes draw our attention to the pace in which the city around us is changing and the concerns that some might be left behind or forced out. The script deals sensitively with the issues of the Tube Strikes, a particular favourite sketch being an awkward Tinder date between a striking tube driver and his oblivious dates who starts ranting about the greediness of tube drivers. In this scene is aided by great physical comedy from waiter Stanford Cambridge and in the terrific comic timing from both Rosie Edwards and Adam Elliot we see a very human side to the struggle (and a debate pretty much every Londoner has had).
That’s what makes this show a success: it is tightly written, goes into a lot of depth (if you’ll pardon the pun), and it is very relatable to the audience to which it has been performed. Jokes about the tube are ten-a-penny in London, which makes writing a genuinely enjoyable hour-and-a-bit of comedy about it so impressive: it’s hard not to be cliché. One does wonder what the potential of this show is outside of the capital, but at the Hen & Chickens Theatre in Islington it was in its element. Exploring the horrors of commuting, the difficulties of strike action, and the different emotional connections people feel to this rumbling behemoth beneath (and partially above – looking at you, DLR) London’s streets, Contactless is both great comedy and a show that makes you think.