Humphrey Ker, David Reed and Thom TuckIt speaks of a certain kind of confidence to stop doing the very thing that makes your act stand out and dive headlong into the considerably crowded waters of sketch comedy, but that is exactly what the Penny Dreadfuls have done with this, their fifth Edinburgh show.
The company have already garnered a sizeable fan base with their elaborate Victorian comic plays, Aeneas Faversham and Aeneas Faversham Returns, but they began as a sketch show troupe and, even in this more familiar format, their material is more varied and inventive than most acts doing similar things on the fringe.
For one thing their timing is impeccable, with each glance and shrug deployed to milk as much humour as they can from any given scene. The sketches themselves are imaginative, entertaining and intelligent; while some are essentially reliant on one joke, others are like miniature plays or, more accurately, miniature B-movies. Theirs is a world of menacing sea captains, dubious spies, traumatised wrestlers, and arrogant amateur racing drivers.
Theres an appealing sense of unity on display, both in the writing and in the shows design – all the sets and costumes are black and yellow (when Thom Tuck dresses as a woman for one particular sketch, even his wig has a yellow stripe in it). Theres continuity in the writing too: the face-off between the two racing drivers is returned to on a number of occasions, with a pair of wheeled office chairs standing in for their clapped-out motors, and the young ship-hand whose parents have been murdered also crops up in several of the sketches.
Most of the time they avoid obvious pay-offs, preferring the unexpected and absurd (with occasional bursts of schoolboy silliness), and the show as a whole is a polished affair, tight in execution and with a keen eye for detail. Even the weaker skits have some inspired element, be it an accent, a gesture, or a random aside, and their crowd-pleasing take on the Twilight saga (I will destroy you in the bedroom!) is only a let down in the sense that you could imagine other companies doing something similar, something you cant say about the rest of their material.