By BRUCE DENNILL
The Thunderbirds: The Disaster Hen Party / Beefcakes, Illovo, Johannesburg
The Thunderbirds are comedians Claudine Ullman, Nina Hastie and Gili Apter, combining their contrasting styles in a never-the-same-twice show that, when staged in drag diner Beefcakes, with its feathers, pink lighting and mirrors, more or less guarantees a freshness you’re unlikely to find in regular stand-up gigs.
Brassy, outspoken Nina Hastie does the hosting, warming up the crowd and stepping into the audience to engage with individuals whose foibles later become part of improvised plotlines as the act unfolds. Her own stand-up is sharp and edgy, with a few lines that might make even the venue’s most seasoned performers blush. She also pops up as a character in later sketches as an able foil to her colleagues
Ullman’s comedy focuses more on improvisation within the framework of a few sketches, including the hen party mentioned in the title. Her characters are uniformly massively over the top, but with touches that ground them in emotional spaces that everyone watching is able to connect with. Her bride to be is stressed to within an inch of a stroke by her own expectations of what her hen party and life going forward is supposed to be like, but is doing everything in her power to convince herself (primarily) and her guests (the audience) that the party is the best time anyone has ever had. It’s wholly committed physical comedy with a barely repressed sense of bleakness – which makes it powerful. This is continued in a later sketch in which Ullman plays Crystal, a spiritual healer of dubious qualifications and – while Hastie as her assistant Kristel carries out some instructions – “cleanses” the Beefcakes stage by manically dancing around waving a lit stick of incense. It is absolutely ridiculous but also totally committed to, and the only response is to laugh with similar gusto, which leaves you feeling goofily happy – more than can be said for simply intellectually stimulating comedy.
Apter is the least demonstrative performer of the trio, mostly – and amusingly – deadpan as she delivers a set based around the folly and confusion involved in relationships in general and her relationships in particular; smart observations about relatable experiences.
There is a rotating (or perhaps random) roster of guest performers for these shows, and Stella Dlagalala fits the energy and the tone of the show well, with a superb bit about how it is for the woman in a relationship when the guy is the one who’s not in the mood for sex.
This format works well. It feels like more of a production than a single comedian with a mic shouting at a bar full of tipsy punters, the variety on stage offers more range than many other shows and having a sit-down meal and a few drinks while you’re watching rounds out the experience well.