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Rob Oldham: Worm’s Lament, Edinburgh preview

| Comedy, Festivals | 03/08/2018

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In our third Edinburgh preview, Ian Cater speaks to up-and-coming comedian Rob Oldham about Worm’s Lament – his debut full-length Fringe show, already tipped for the Best Newcomer Award.

Not bad, is it?  To be one year out of university and putting on your first hour-long show at Pleasance Courtyard.  To be performing work directed by one of the best contemporary creative minds around.  To be described as having a ‘unique comedic voice’ by the age of 23.  To be, in short, Rob Oldham.

“I realise how lucky I am,” he says, examining each word with deliberation before placing it before him.  And he does, you sense, truly feel that fortune.  But equally, Oldham would be forgiven for finding success routine.  Getting into Cambridge was soon eclipsed by the award of a Double First and a place on the prestigious Footlights sketch troupe touring the United States.  Shortly afterwards, he was handpicked to provide tour support for John Kearns and Abandoman.  And even his football team, Fulham FC, got promoted last season.

Yet it’d be wrong to portray Oldham as someone who’s had things handed to him on a silver platter.  He’s worked hard for his achievements and shown since graduating that’s he’s happy to start at the bottom rung of the comedy ladder.

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 19.50.09“When I got back from touring with Footlights, I decided to move back home with my parents and work the London open mic circuit.  I wanted to test out my jokes in the real world.  Until then, I’d only really performed sketch material or solo work to student audiences.  It was great to have supportive crowds early on.  If I’d started with bad gigs and hostile reactions, who’s to say whether I’d have continued?  But I felt it was important to step away from that comfort blanket and see if I could make others laugh.”

Oldham says the experience has also helped him “plug into the live comedy scene” for the first time.  “Growing up, I watched lots on telly but never really went to see live shows.  So I had no concept of what a comedian’s career involved or how many were doing it.  This year has changed all of that and I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed it.  Some gigs have felt like a bit of an ordeal, but they’re good in other ways.  If you can get over being shouted at during a gig in a service station, nothing seems so bad after that.

“It’s done wonders for my writing as well.  When you’re travelling an hour each way three times a week to do a five minute slot, it really forces you to make sure what you’re saying is as good as it can possibly be.”

Poetry in motion

As someone who weighs his words so carefully, language is clearly important to Oldham.  “It is,” he acknowledges, “although I think that’s the case for any comedian.”  True, but not every stand-up extends their love of language to incorporating prose poetry into a set.

“My show’s broadly about growing up and finding your place in the world.  As I’m talking about that long journey, I didn’t want to be too rigid and say: ‘This happened when I was 10, then it was like this when I went to uni.’  The poems are a nice way of handling some of those stories differently.  They allow you to make things more impressionistic, to build a collage of verbal ideas and images.”

They also serve an additional purpose, providing interludes and structure.  “Worm’s Lament essentially expands on the 35-minute show called Brink that I did last year, which didn’t require many breaks in the monologue.  But with a longer performance, I think it’s important to add some vocal texture through poems or mini-sketches where I take on two voices in a conversation.  With this being my first hour, I’m conscious of keeping the form varied and interesting for the audience, so I’ve been mindful of that when piecing it together.”

DjBRCnEWwAASSaROldham’s editing process has been aided greatly by Liam Williams’ role as the show’s director.  “He’s been so helpful to me creatively,” Oldham says.  “Liam’s got an amazing ear for phrasing – that’s clear from Ladhood, which is basically a prose poem.  So he’s given microcosmic input on sentences and also structural suggestions that have stopped me getting bogged down.

“It’s apt because Liam inspired me to prioritise stand-up in the first place.  I saw his show at the Fringe and didn’t know comedy could do that – more expansive and experimental than anything I’d seen.”

Williams returned the favour by watching Brink last year and – perhaps seeing something of himself in a fellow Cambridge alumnus – invited him to team up with Fight In The Dog, the exciting production company Williams cofounded a few years ago.  Oldham was delighted to accept.  “It’s so nice having people around who really know what they’re doing in what could otherwise be quite an intimidating process,” he says.

Self beliefs

But despite sharing a poetic style, Oldham is far from a carbon copy of his director.  Tall and energetic onstage, he’s already crafted an unusually strong comedic voice for someone of his tender years.  “I guess that could be because I started doing sketch comedy at uni and dabbled with stand-up without really knowing the contemporary scene.  So in that embryonic stage, I could experiment and find my style without any outside influences.”

Such outside influences form a key part of Worm’s Lament, where Oldham explores how our moral and political beliefs are shaped.  “A big part of growing up is developing beliefs and I’m interested in that process.  I think it’s an area pretty rich in humour.  So the show looks at why I think the way I think: is it a product of being right or a result of different factors being exerted on me?  It’s not done in a heavy way though.  And it’s probably more social than political.”

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 19.50.00This sociological angle helps keep the material widely relatable, important given Oldham’s decision to focus cultural reference points at his age range.  “It makes sense to talk about what you know – in my case, growing up in Wandsworth in the build-up to the economic crash.  But also fewer comedians have dwelt on the mid-noughties – compared to the nineties for example – so it’s less saturated and more interesting to look at.”

Oldham regularly selects the word “interesting”, reflecting that he’d rather discuss matters appealing to his intellect than opt for easy targets.  For example, describing himself as “broadly Left-wing”, Oldham likes to lampoon the Right before quickly turning the gaze back to poke fun at those on his side of the political fence – a routine where he ends up assaulting a Tory for his “elitist, intolerant and cruel” ways being a case in point.

“I’m aware I could get an easy laugh by standing up at The Pleasance and shouting ‘Fuck the Tories’.  But it’d feel very hollow.  I think comedy’s far more interesting if there’s some friction in the room.  So I’d rather explore the little contradictions in my own beliefs – which many in the room are likely to share – as that’s more fulfilling.  It’s not aggressive towards the audience; it’s more a process of self-interrogation.”

Plate spinning

Nowadays that process pretty much demands him to be open and self-deprecating about his privilege.  To that end, Oldham sends up the “great relationship” with his parents and happily discusses Footlights despite “Oxbridge white blokes” – as the BBC Comedy’s Shane Allen recently described them – seemingly falling out of fashion.

“I can say only good things about Footlights from my experience.  I’d heard of it before I went to uni, but had no intention of joining.  It was only because my friend Tom and I had time on our hands at the end of the first year that we decided to submit a sketch.  Then Footlights gave me this incredible opportunity to write and perform comedy every two weeks for two years.  That helped me get less nervous on stage quite quickly.”

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 19.50.17Oldham comes across as so composed, that it’s hard to imagine him being nervous – except when we talk about the future.  “I really worry about it, so I’m always making a Plan B and a Plan C,” he says, referring to the law conversion course he’s just completed at BPP.

“At times I keep too many plates spinning, but it gives me a better sense of security.  And whatever I do tends to expand to fit the space, so having lots on forces me to be more disciplined with my time.  Eventually something will give and hopefully I’ll be left to focus on what I really care about.”

What Oldham cares about right now is giving his best at this year’s Fringe, after admitting he was “massively distracted” during the World Cup.  “I’ll be fully focused because it’s a great opportunity for me and lots of people.  I think Jacob Hawley‘s phenomenal and rightfully going places – his debut show’s very intelligent and warm.  Flora Anderson does an interesting mix of character and stand-up.  And as I still like watching loads of sketch comedy, I’d better mention Sheeps or Liam will never speak to me again.”

Rob Oldham is performing ‘Worm’s Lament’ in the Pleasance That room at Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) every day at 21.30.  Head here for tickets.  For more information, follow Rob on Twitter @roboldham94.  Images are courtesy of Anneliese Nappa.

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