Comedy Review: Hal Cruttenden & Jessica Fostekew @ St James’s Theatre

If, like us, you’ve never visited the St. James Theatre, that’s understandable: this is the opening season of the first newly-built West End theatre for 30 years.

The studio, which will host regular comedy clubs, is beautiful. We have become accustomed to comedy in sticky basements and stripped-down theatre spaces; the St. James Theatre looks like the comedy club from Louie – all candles and “decor”.

We saw a double-act on 8 November: Hal Cruttenden and Jessica Fostekew performed their Edinburgh shows from earlier in the year.

Hal Cruttenden is probably going to be famous and there’s nothing, reader, that either of us can do about that. Aiming for the broadest possible target audience, Cruttenden has more than enough charm to carry his anecdotes and observations, none of which are particularly inventive or interesting. He’s better when he’s talking to the audience, letting down his mask, and just… chatting. In a pub, he’s probably a very funny man. In a club, he’s aggressively mediocre.

There’s also a distasteful vein of snobbery running through his I-am-so-middle-class act, which no amount of irony can cover up. The Hal Cruttenden experience is a bit like giving your “mad” uncle a microphone at a wedding.

The audience gathered at the St. James Theatre loves him, though, which allows Londonist to peer into the future with some accuracy. Hal Cruttenden is going to get larger and larger gigs, and some panel show work, and eventually he’s going to annoy somebody and immediately recover from that to sell DVDs every Christmas forever.

Happily, none of that can happen unless Michael McIntyre retires and leaves a gap in the market.

The second act on the bill, Jessica Fostekew, promises something interesting, or at least different, depending on your academic leanings: it’s a comedy show about etymology. Full disclosure; we were looking forward to this. This is the best man speech for which we were holding our breath all through Hal Cruttenden’s avuncular rambling.

Here’s the thing, though: Fostekew doesn’t seem to have enough confidence in the linguistic material to let it stand alone. When she talks about word-origin and foreign-language cognates, the jokes are natural, engaging, arising from the subject at hand.

The rest of the time, the jokes are broad and forcefully transitioned: as if designed by a committee who were afraid that nobody would “get” the linguisticky stuff. So as well as etymology jokes we get awkward character bits and gags about boyfriends.

The framing device – this is supposed to be like school, but maybe on the last day before summer – places Fostekew as a teacher, trying her best to engage her class in the subject.

But it’s really interesting! During an improvisational section, where the audience calls out their favourite words and Fostekew makes up an origin for them on the spot, the audience seems interested enough to forgive moments of silent thought.

We will say that Jessica Fostekew makes some excellent callbacks to earlier setups, where the time between them is usually much, much longer than expected. Admittedly, they were often lost on the audience. But we loved them.

The St. James Theatre will host a semi-regular comedy club; check the website for details.

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