Brighton’s legendary satirical comedy show is fast approaching its 17th year. The Treason Show presents a team of multi-talented performers unleashing quick-fire, topical sketches to audiences across the city. Around 40 writing staff feed its relentless hunger for new material, most of them meeting weekly to toss ideas about. On a blustery Tuesday night, nine of them crowd into the upstairs room of a city centre pub. Around the table gags are furiously flying back and forth. Keeping some semblance of order is actor Mark Brailsford, the show’s creator, director and lead performer, and a handout listing the week’s prominent stories. These range from the obvious – the US election and Brexit fallout, to the plain odd – like Bono’s award for being ‘Woman of the Year’ and the rise of ‘fake news’.
So, what’s the best thing about scriptwriting for The Treason Show? “It’s seeing something that you’ve written brought to life by a brilliant cast, maybe adding some unexpected angles of their own – and then hearing an audience respond with spontaneous and raucous laughter,” says John Cowen, who’s been with the show since the start. “When it does, it’s extraordinarily satisfying for the writer – a kind of validation of the craft.” There’s no public figure, institution, or nation immune from their withering gaze. Obviously, there are a few subjects which can’t be diminished or denigrated any further. As you’d expect for a topical satirical comedy show, the antics of a certain US President-Elect are proving hard to ignore. “There’s four years of Treason heaven!” Brailsford remarks. It looks like their investment in a ridiculous wig is going to pay off.
Occasionally there’s an eruption of “writers’ meeting only” gags which will never resurface. But one of The Treason Show’s best features is just how daring it can be. “I think it’s essential to visit areas the mainstream media dare not touch, to pick up on what an intelligent Treason audience may well be thinking, and revel in that shared, non-PC perspective.” Always brave, this kind of humour will inspire some and offend others. Brailsford recalls a sketch with Nigel Farage performing White Christmas, which shook a few individuals’ hubris. “It’s not on mainstream telly, so we can be as rude and direct as we like,” Cowen continues. “We can give voice to what public figures might really be thinking, instead of the tediously-spun rubbish they are instructed to spout in front of the BBC or a hack from the Daily Mail.”
While satire criticises our society, it stems from concern rather than bitterness. It also confronts personal evils, like complacency, ignorance, or greed. By being smart it may offer more about extremism and plain stupidity than any political commentator could. The writers and cast are facing possibly their busiest December yet, with the That Was The Year That Was 2016 show heading to the Royal Pavilion Ice Rink, The Old Market, Shoreham’s Ropetackle Centre and venues across the county. It’s combines the usual topical material with a retrospective of the year, and 2016 was an inspirational time for this bunch. “It will get even better in 2017 – thanks in no small part to President Trump… And the comical pratfalls of UKIP and Brexit have provided rich seams.” Typically, the writing turnaround is around a fortnight, but the truly topical stuff can be done right up to performance time. A big reason the show has lasted so long is because it remains relevant and hilarious, without trying to push an ideology. A mix of fiercely inventive,often surreal, material and oddball songs, it’s perfect for anyone who doesn’t take life too seriously.
There’s always the danger the only people truly appreciating the jokes are those already bemoaning the issue. That’s why it works best when it favours comedy over evangelisation. By creating a range of fantasy characters and off-beat situations the show gets to discuss topical issues through the unexpected, like exploring the inside of Tony Blair’s brain or so-called Islamic State’s so-called video production studio. “Just ranting about an unpopular public figure has far less impact than shining a light by reimagining that person in another domain – for example, having Theresa May as an inexperienced supply teacher unexpectedly finding herself head of a basket-case, failing academy.” It’s not just what goes down on paper that counts, the cast’s interpretations often bring some brilliant caricatures.
Memorable roles include Brailsford’s Pope John Paul II and Trump, Daniel Beales’ legendary Patrick Moore and Alistair Kerr’s tipsy Rowan Williams brandishing a wine bottle. But Cowen’s favourite sketch involves the show’s Mark Katz as a tabloid editor auctioning off his paper’s front page. Bids for coverage come from murders, train crashes, African famines, and horrific Asian tsunamis, all ultimately trumped by the capture of a single, white American soldier in Iraq. “The sketch worked, because our audience recognised the indisputable truth in this depiction of the Western media’s cynical evaluation of the newsworthiness of events – and of people – around the world.” From Greek classics to The Daily Show, satire has aided discussion of injustices and hypocrisy while hopefully getting a giggle or two. “In some instances, it can challenge established opinion through offering an unexpected perspective on a public figure, or shed new light on a current issue. But we’re hardly here to educate: laughter remains the point of the show.”
The Treason Show: That Was The Year That Was 2016 comes to The Old Market on Mon 12 – Thurs 15 Dec and the Royal Pavilion Ice Rink Restaurant on Tues 27 – Thurs 29 Dec.
Image by Per Bix