Review: Olga Koch, Soho Theatre, W1

Review: Olga Koch, Soho Theatre, W1

As the live comedy world has started to return to some kind of normality I have been thinking a lot about the nature of reviewing. Am I offering a consumer guide? Am I writing an entertaining article that will be enjoyable to read? And I providing a service to the industry? To the public? Am I looking at comedy as entertainment or art?

I guess the answer is all of these things (and in just 300 words when it's for the Evening Standard). But the tension between art and entertainment has been particularly bothering me lately. When I went to see Simon Amstell last week at Soho Theatre I really enjoyed his show. But on the other hand I've seen all of Simon Amstell's shows over the last decade. This one was full of the usual self-aware, self-mocking gags. But had the 'story' progressed? Had he moved on? Apart from a hint of a potential future change, not really.

Then earlier this week I reviewed a mixed bill for the Evening Standard at the Underbelly Festival featuring Phil Wang, Jessica Fostekew, Huge Davies, Evelyn Mok and Babatunde Aleshe. It was a full house and it was fantastic to see a group of skilful comedians back in the game making a whole room rock with laughter. But did they push any artistic envelopes? Again, not really. They 'just' made an audience laugh for 90 minutes with short snappy club-style sets.

Which brings me to Olga Koch's new show Homecoming. The press release says this: "What does it mean to belong and where is home? With her new passport in hand, Homecoming will see Olga try to figure out who the hell she is as an immigrant and certified teen drama queen."

Koch certainly has a personal story arc when it comes to full-length shows. Her award-nominated breakthrough debut, Koch Fight, was about her family history and her father's rise through the Russian political ranks which ended when he left the country very quickly. So I expected the new show to explain not just why she was living in England but why she had actually become an English citizen. At a time when maybe 48 per cent (just a random figure) of the country probably don't think the current UK passport is worth the paper it is printed on why did Koch want one?

It felt like an obvious question to me, but one that she didn't entirely answer in her show, even though it might have been a simple answer – to avoid Priti Patel sending her packing? In fact there is a very funny one-liner about Priti Patel in Koch's set. I want to make it clear before I go on that it's a very funny show, full of well crafted, immaculately assembled jokes. At times you could feel the ripples of laughter spreading throughout the room as well as hear them. Even when the jokes were slightly weaker or going for low-hanging fruit – there are a few rule-of-three quips that could have been more inventive – Koch's confident, punchy personality and comic physicality drives home the pay-offs and gets the required response.

But I was frustrated by the show as well. I thought there would be enough material in discussing the nature of nationality to fill a whole hour. Her early routine about the citizenship test was truly hilarious even if the jokes, based on the absurd questions, to a certain extent wrote themseves. It also made me worry that if I had to take it I'd probably be put on the next deportation boat out.

Yet instead of homing in on this Koch seamed to transition half way through from a thoughtful show about identity into a show about sex, school and motivational speakers. Again there were some terrific lines and act-outs here, and occasionally the subjects did overlap – there's a neat reflection on the way that English boys were keen on her because they thought they would be dating someone out of Mean Girls (Koch has an American accent) only to discover that they were dating someone who went to school in Staines.

It has not been the easiest year to put a show together of course. Koch has done a few previews of this and a very short run at the Edinburgh Fringe, but in past years there would have probably have been a month in Edinburgh to iron out any remaining wrinkles before taking the show on a UK tour. Maybe if that had been the case some of my niggles would have been resolved before I saw it. I'm not a dramaturge, just a critic, but, for example, I thought the finale wasn't seeded strongly enough.

Also – annoying pedant alert – I thought a gag about the British thinking they singlehandedly won WW2 was very astute and original but then slightly undermined with a wartime reference that Brits tend to associate with WW1. A simple line could have threaded the two different wars together. But hey, that's just me. Judging by the appreciative noises coming from the audience I doubt if anybody else was that bothered by it.

And that brings me back to my dilemma about reviewing. Am I reviewing the show or the audience response to it? The audience was thoroughly entertained, there's no absolutely zilch debate about that and I'd happily recommend that you run out and buy a ticket. In fact Koch probably left the audience wanting more. I also wanted more. But specifically more about Koch's unique perspective on the UK. If she wanted that odious black non-EU passport so much there must surely be an entire one hour show in there itching to get out.

Olga Koch tour dates here.

Picture: Rachel Sherlock

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