A nervous young man kneels before what appears to be a birdcage with a sheet draped over it, addresses it as his mother and begins to sort a bundle of white towels into clean and dirty piles. "Mother" admonishes her timid son for his slovenly domestics and reveals a bitter fixation on his long-absent father. At which point, father announces his entrance, dressed in the uniform of a Hussar. Probably best to stop there, I think.
To tell you that the four-man troupe who enact these and half-a-dozen other comic epyllions is called Universal Grinding Wheel and that this scene forms just one part of the routine entitled "The Dancing Highwayman" (main theme: crime and punishment) is to give you a fairly good idea of UGW's stock-in-trade: the melodramatic non-sequitur. The audience, however, aren't privy to these titles, which hint at the epic 30- and 40-page narratives the Grinders reduce to six minutes of comedic stock for each sketch.
Under such dramatic pressures, pauses aren't just pregnant, they're expecting quads. Every utterance is as loaded as it is baffling, a burden the Grinders brilliantly lighten with flashes of common sense. In "Ursa Major" (main theme: medical ethics and the extra-terrestrial), an alien presents one Dr Avery and his companions with their inescapable fate - transportation to another planet. Confronted with their pre-packed luggage, the three capitulate: "We have no choice!" Stage left then offers itself as an obvious escape route, which Avery's companions exploit with comic ease, but, according to the sketch notes, "Avery stands torn between the glamour of a New World and the reassurance of Planet Earth." Right.
Like the best surreal humour, Universal Grinding Wheel manages, by and large, to avoid losing its audience by revealing the patent silliness that bubbles away beneath the veneer of "normality". Doing for Ibsen what Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer have done for the celebrity panel game, the Grinders seem to delight in taking the moralising tone of 19th-century drama to its absurd conclusion.
In response to the premature announcement of the demise of stand-up at last year's Edinburgh Fringe, the media seemed to settle on sketch teams as the new comedy sensation; a zeitgeist which the League of Gentlemen surfed to Perrier and Radio 4 success. The League's macabrely humorous theatrics are more tangible than UGW, but in concession to their audiences, the Grinders have promised to lighten up a bit. During A Celebration of the World's Teas, their last Edinburgh show in 1996, the quartet would stop their performance at the slightest sign of laughter and stare at the amused culprit until he or she stopped.
Universal Grinding Wheel will be at the Edinburgh Festival in August.
Mike HigginsReuse content