Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Bizarre Bath Comedy Walk

In complete contrast to the Bath Abbey audio tour, which I took in the afternoon, was the Bizarre Bath Comedy Walk that began at 8PM outside a pub in the city centre.

Our host for the evening, Noel, sprung up seemingly from nowhere and after a few brief jokes, explained that this wasn't going to be a history walk and took the money for the tickets. There must have been a good forty odd of us, so it took a little time to hand out the coloured wrist bands but the process was transparent and efficient so we hung with it. 

He had a confident way to work the crowd and figure out where we were from. Wherever people said they came from he had a caricature about them to offer in reply; the Dutch were pot smokers with funny accents while the Kiwis just a little bit slow, the Americans knew nothing about geography and were on the big side, which indeed those present were. It was not the most politically correct of intros, but comedy rarely is, and I got the feeling it was all done for laughs rather than with any malice. Playing to an international crowd it had to be pretty broad and I got the sense he knew his public and pitched it well. He had one or two props with him, a crate that he stood on, which proved essential as he is no basketball player, a small backpack and two helium balloons. This was a comedy routine that was well practiced and everything he took with him had a purpose.

The walk is made up of different elements: magic show, comedy and challenges for a member of the audience to complete. What I thought was very smart about it was that these different elements could all form part of a stage show but had instead be adapted into a walk around the city centre. Whereas a comedian working in a club would probably be under pressure to constantly develop new material, by performing his act as a walk, principally, though not exclusively, for tourists, he was instead able to go deeper into the same material. I had the feeling this walk had been gradually added to, refined and the relationship it had to the locations deepened over time. What's more, because it is an interactive, outdoor show it remained a bit out of control and he still has to ad lib from time to time. In this way the act didn't feel stale in the way it might if it were the same stage show performed for several years.

Here we were treated to a very nice parody of a history guide who doesn't know the first thing about history. Having seen one or two guides bluffing their way through tours before, this was especially amusing for me.

We had a bit of fun following a blindfolded Noel in search of ley lines. This, like pretty much the whole show, was eccentric stuff that didn't really tell us anything very directly about the city of Bath, but it did show how the city could be used by someone in search of gags. To my mind that does finally tell us something about the city, about how it functions and how a professional street entertainer has enough flow of public to make it worthwhile doing this routine every night. You wouldn't find this in my city of Portsmouth: he'd make no money and get into problems with local yobs and jobsworth officials. 

There was a deliberate and pleasing ambiguity whether some of the things that we encountered were deliberate or accidental. Without giving away what these were, this grey zone is something that can only be achieved with acting, being well prepared and being able to ad lib so that everything can be brought back into the frame of the show. What's more, he parodied this quality of being surprised at a later point in the walk too, and because we had already bought into the game this parody of the rules also worked and kept the show moving forward.

The basic format of the walk was that the group walked a short distance, stopped and then at each spot he did something that got a laugh. Sometimes this involved complicated routines but other times it relied upon simple observations such as a joke about an empty events board. This all flowed very naturally but, I had to think about it and take things one step back and imagine the process of making a walk like this. It must have required looking at every banal thing in the city centre, re-imagining it and looking for its comic potential. That in itself would be a tour worth taking.

He made a number of gags by tempting them with a cash prize. It was funny to watch how people think they might be in with a chance of winning something when he clearly held the winning hand every time. Such is the power of money and he knew how to play the game well, pulling people in, playing with them then turning it all into a big joke.

Compared to the historic tours I have taken so far, the Bizarre Bath route was quite different. Although he stayed in the city centre, he used it in a different way and thus revealed an alternative side of it. He was not looking for historic buildings to talk about but was instead looking for places he could gather a crowd easily, places that didn't involve crossing too many roads and locations which serviced specific gags, such as this walkway down by the river. 

As it went on it became more and more a magic show which here features an escapology routine. Something that you can notice is just how colour co-ordinated Bizarre Bath is with it's insistence on purple. What's more, scattered around Bath city centre are a number of bikes bearing adverts for the walk, too. I've noticed how parked bikes have become a site for adverts in a number of cities, this being an effective way to circumvent the larger companies that control the poster sites. By choosing a relatively unusual colour and pushing it for all its worth in a fairly unsaturated environment, it has the local effect of becoming Bizarre Bath Purple, as nobody else is using this colour.  

One thing that surprised me was that there was an 'invisible' assistant who did some work behind the scenes, such as running out to clear up after the group had moved on. I'm a big believer in the old adage of "if you can't hide it spotlight it" and I felt that this was one of the very few awkward moments of the walk when I saw something I shouldn't have. Seeing as the rest of the show was so immediate and Noel, the guide, could clearly talk his way out of an ISIS hostage situation, I found this unnecessary, though it may be that there are some technical details that need ironing out and no solution is entirely elegant. This is, however, a very minor point, and one I was deliberately looking for. Most of the group missed it as they were already in tow on their way to the final destination and in any case, it didn't seriously detract from the fact that Bizarre Bath was a very enjoyable couple of hours of nonsense played out on the streets, which, while done for laughs, does up the game for all the more straight guides too.


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