MICF Review: Big Top Bob
The world is very pessimistic these days, isn’t it? Sometimes, when looking at the repeated themes in the art and culture of today’s society, you can’t help but notice that it’s drawn towards the tragic, morose, and depressing, despite the fact that, at least for those lucky enough to be born into the First World, things have never been better. Even the comedy these days seems to have a mandatory layer of ‘edginess’, with many comics preferring to stick to topics that will make them seem ‘cool’ and ‘deep’, rather than what is actually funny. Hence, when a light-hearted show like Bob Downe’s Big Top Bob comes along and seeks to be just plain fun, it is as refreshing as it is excellent.
Staged at the legendary Speigel Tent as a part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Big Top Bob is a cabaret extravaganza which has a level of expertise and polish that exceeds even the highest of expectations, and shows every other theatrical comedy team exactly how it’s done. I know a good reviewer doesn’t give away his or her opinion too early in the piece but, frankly, this show is so superb that I couldn’t beat around the bush any longer, and wanted to make it clear that any further criticisms I have of Big Top Bob are purely nit-picks, or of an entirely subjective nature that would just as easily be compliments in the eyes of another person. With that in mind, on with the review.
Probably the first big positive of the show is its choice of venue. I’m told by someone (who is one sixteenth German) that the word ‘Speigel’ literally means ‘mirror’, and consequently the inside of the tent is lined with dozens of small mirrors that lend it a bright magical atmosphere from the moment you walk in. Although the structure isn’t particularly large, the space inside has been used effectively to squeeze as many people in without it feeling cramped, and there are cosy wooden booths along the side, making you really feel like you’re inside a jazz club. The stage area itself comes in the form of a long catwalk that juts out amongst the seats, which you would imagine offers a golden opportunity for audience participation, but (thankfully) none of the acts take it that much. The only permanent fixture on the stage is The Shuffle Club, a very gifted blues band that suits the performances down to a tee.
Then there’s Bob Downe himself. As soon as the star of the show enters, he instantly lifts the energy of the house to the rafters, filling it with enthusiastic ramblings and intentionally corny quips. On paper, cabaret and comedy are an ideal marriage, as the best cabaret is always rather buffoonish and tongue-in-cheek, while the best comedy usually has an element of absurdity, and focuses on the weird extremes in life. What Bob Downe does is weld these two styles together, creating a show that has all the interesting, quirkily entertaining features of classic cabaret whilst upholding its ability to make the audience laugh. Where so many other comics of his ilk labour their jokes and try too hard to be the jubilant duffer, Downe effortlessly greases the gaps between acts through his perfect use of one-liners, anecdotes, and parodies of old songs, weaving amongst the others seamlessly to ensure that he never gets in the way nor abandons the audience. Although quality of this caliber may be expected from a comedian who is as accomplished and experienced as Mark Treverrow (his real name), his performance in Big Top Bob exceeds even those high esteems, and at the very least proves that his best days are not yet past.
But what is a circus without its clowns? Besides Bob and the band, the show consists of six other performers, including two acrobats, a contortionist, an impersonator, a singer and an amusing magician/grumpy dragon named ‘Piff the Magic Dragon’. While seven may sound like an untraditionally small ensemble, each of the cast members is so talented and versed in their craft that they carry the power of a huge one, with more energy, prowess and entertainment value than could be mustered by even a three-hundred-man chorus extravaganza. This brings me to what is perhaps the part I most appreciated about Big Top Bob – its tightness. There are no frills, bells, or whistles, no tacked-on acts put in just to pad the whole thing out, nothing promotional or ironic – just sharp, side-splittingly-funny jokes and content. As a matter of fact, it almost appears that they started out with a long line of potential routines, and sought to narrow them down until only the best remain, because there really isn’t anyone here who doesn’t deserve to be. The impersonator is a particular favourite, sending up generations of political figures from Clive Palmer to the Queen, and the acrobats, despite not being there to humour, are amazing in their field. But the real standout is Mr Piffles, who is both hilarious and an incredible magician. Without wanting to spoil, the best line of the night comes when Piffles walks out on the stage, dressed a dragon, holding a chiuauaua also dressed as a dragon, and standing next to a bright red wooden box with retractable legs and mechanical sides, and says ‘well, I would hate to have to resort to gimmicks’.
You may have noticed that I’ve used the word ‘magic’ a lot this review, but that’s because there is no other way to describe Big Top Bob. It may not be for everyone, and while there is certainly a place in life for the dark and gritty, finding something that serves just to make people happy and accomplishes that goal with flying colours is by far the most rewarding experience there is at this year’s festival. Big Top Bob is an absolute must see.
– Andrew Kelso
Big Top Bob is now showing at the Spiegeltent as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival until April 19.