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Of Britain’s comedy exports, there is perhaps none bigger than the double act. The modern comedy duo has its origins in the music halls of mid-19th-century London – a time when performing pairs were so inescapable that, in Victoria and Albert, Britain even had its own double act on the throne. Since then, there’s been a long arc of comical couples warming our cold, empirical hearts, from Morecambe and Wise to Fry and Laurie – and now there are some new pretenders: Boris and Sergey. The raucous and anarchic pair are terrorising audiences at Battersea’s Theatre503 until January 11th and it’s the must-see show this Christmas. Convivial and endearing, their one hour of mayhem is truly vaudevillian – a variety act that is all-singing, all-dancing, all-poker and, er, some fellatio. Have I mentioned they’re puppets?
Having heard varying accounts of their previous shows (It’s hilarious! It’s offensive. It’s genius! It’s stupid.), and not being one to laugh lightly, I am frosty on arrival. Ostensibly, the plot goes, Boris and Sergey are on the run from the Dark Ones, to whom Sergey has bet and lost his soul in the Puppet Poker Pit. There’s a car chase, an aeroplane crash and a parachute sequence (does someone’s parachute not open?! Welcome to comedy!), but the plot is not actually the main part of the show. Most of the performance is the warm-up, and it works. I am warm. They are truly hilarious. They are wooing us and we are lapping it up.
Boris and Sergey are two leathery, faceless, table-top puppets. Our leading men have three puppeteers each, and they are well aware of it. There’s a wonderful, Brechtian sequence of Boris and Sergey’s first Christmas together, in which Sergey discovers that he’s not actually in control of his own limbs. Then later, when the puppeteer in charge of Sergey’s feet doesn’t want to play anymore, he has to ask her nicely to move his legs in order to go on with the show. It is only when the puppets themselves point to their manipulators that we remember that they’re there; testament to the finesse, dexterity and co-ordination of the six puppeteers on stage. Coupled with the fact that much of the show is improvised, which is virtually impossible to do when one character is actually a team, the show is astonishingly good.
After some parlour games, celebrity impressions and a bevy of comic skits, we are finally in the Puppet Poker Pit. Boris and Sergey get two members of the audience up on stage to play poker with them, and their guests have no idea what is going on. But like old-timer pros, Boris and Sergey mock, harass and provoke them during their time in the spotlight. Their poking and prodding of “Salmon Dan” (one of the guests is wearing a pink jumper) is an expert display of how six puppeteers can come together and tell the same joke, without even knowing what it is they’re going to say.
The only glitches are the occasional unnecessary jokes. Boris is entertaining us with an alarmingly accurate rendition of Kate Bush’s famous “Wuthering Heights” dance. It’s an ethereal Pan’s People routine performed by an androgynous ghost, and we are laughing the entire time. It’s only afterwards, when Boris leaps off the stage to copulate with the face of an unsuspecting audience member, that the laughter stops. It’s a second punchline for a joke that was already funny, and it goes down like a lead balloon. For most of the performance, Boris and Sergey are a wonderful example of a puppet show exclusively for adults that isn’t mired in pretension. It’s only these occasional strays across the line, the jokes that don’t have any relevance other than “we know our audience is over 18, so we can” that let the performance down a little. We are warned in advance, admittedly, that we will be “burnt, bruised, battered and buggered”, so maybe we should have seen it coming. So to speak.
Flabbergast have produced a definitive piece of puppet theatre for the masses, a show for the populace – of the people and for the people. The slapstick humour is cathartic in its violence, and the well-worn pairing of straight-man and clown is seen at its finest. Boris is exceptionally likeable, and his naivety plays so well against Sergey’s poker face. Reminiscent in its chaos of the enduring Mr Punch, Boris and Sergey are the new lowbrow antiheroes for modern audiences. It’s festive pandemonium at its finest, and your Christmas would be lacking if you didn’t manage to see it.
Boris and Sergey’s Vaudevillan Xmas Adventure continues at Theatre503 until January 11. See the Theatre503 website for dates andinformation.