Footlights is a byword for everything that is most puerile and self-indulgent about student revues - all jokes about cucumber sandwiches and punting by performers in boaters and waistcoats.
The company have always got the critics' goats. In 1959 the Daily Sketch asked: "What has happened to the Footlights? Jonathan Miller wants to be a chemist and not a theatrical cult - I back his judgement." Three years later, the Oxford Mail reckoned that "somebody's doused the Footlights ... Two numbers, not so much sick as sadistic, are the work of John Cleese and Graham Chapman, who are responsible for a lot of the poorer material."
The reviewer in the London Evening News thought that the 1965 show "can be recommended only to the parents and friends of those taking part - very fond parents, very close friends". With a perspicacity that only critics can manage, he went on to predict that for the company which included Eric Idle and Graeme Garden "this will probably be the only occasion the cast can be seen on the professional stage". Since then, the reviews have, if anything, become even more vituperative. "This show is unfocused, immature, well-produced tosh trading on its name, and these students, like most students, should shut up until they grow up," thundered Scotland On Sunday about the 1995 offering.
Which makes it all the more surprising that this year's show, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, is not at all bad. Although containing the bodily functions sketch without which no student revue would be complete, the majority of the show exudes exuberance. There are some sparkingly energetic ensemble set pieces including a hopeless four-man acrobatic troupe who are trying in vain to conceal the rather obvious fact that one of them is a corpse. Individually, the performers are strong, too. Richard Ayoade and John Oliver run through a neat dimwits' double act. "Why do Irish people dance like this?" asks one, acting out Riverdance. "Because they've had their arms decommissioned."
That's not to say that the company aren't aware of their sometimes baleful reputation. "There is this feeling that anything from Oxbridge gets slammed as elitist," sighs Dr Harry Porter, the Footlights' long-standing archivist. "It's automatic. Recently, the company went to Manchester, and I said I could write the reviews beforehand - `Why are these snooty Cambridge people expecting us to pay money to watch them?' - and it was almost exactly that."
Oliver, too, regrets that the company has fallen victim to some class warrior-style sniping about Footlights being stuffed to the gills with Hooray Henrys and Henriettas. "One reviewer said, `these are over-paid students with names like Tamsin', and we were killed as toffs by The Daily Star. It's unacceptable to poke at people for their backgrounds. But if the definition of privilege is being offered good opportunities, then we have to take it on the nose because it's true."
But surely some of the slatings have been justified? "There has been valid criticism in the past that the show has been too self-reflective and navel-gazing and angled too much towards students," admits Daniel Morgenstern, the Footlights' treasurer and tour co-ordinator.
That's just one reason why Footlights this year have brought in an outside director, Cal McCrystal, from the innovative Peepolykus theatre company. He hopes to dispel the spoilt-brat, Bridesheady tag: "There was this image of people swigging champagne and spouting jargon like `plodge' for the porter's lodge," he says. "They gave the impression that they were the creme de la creme, and a level of youthful arrogance came out. That's why they've got this self-indulgent reputation. When I first went to Edinburgh in 1978, we used to glare in restaurants at Footlights people like Griff Rhys Jones and Clive Anderson. They had canes and boaters and did tap numbers about sandwiches."
The company are now suffering because the mud slung at them in the past has stuck. "A lot of the problem stems from the fact that the Footlights are an icon, and icons are there to be knocked down," McCrystal continues. "Critics have gone with an agenda - `can I see the new John Cleese?' - and inevitably been disappointed."
McCrystal is attempting a Mandelsonian re-branding exercise by presenting this year's Footlights as a Confederacy of Dunces. "The big change has been moving from a typical self-congratulatory Footlights approach of `this is very witty' to something more of a belly laugh," says Oliver. "Between a Rock and a Hard Place is not a clever-clever show. It's supposed to be stupid. We've developed sides of ourselves to be laughed at. In the past, the typical Footlights way was to place yourself above the joke and say, `I'm better than this'. Here we put ourselves below it and set ourselves up for a fall. It's more satisfying than the normal, stand-offish student revue."
But this is just one Footlights company performing one show for one season. As Oliver points out, "next year they may go back to men in boaters singing songs about punting on the Cam". God forbid.
The Cambridge Footlights show, `Between a Rock and a Hard Place', is at Pleasance One in Edinburgh (0131 556 6550) from 5 to 31 August and is then touring the country.Reuse content