Penny Dreadful's Etherdome

Penny Dreadful, but not THE Penny Dreadfuls. Confused? Peter E Davidson was.

There was major cause for confusion surrounding the final act of this year’s Big Tickle Comedy Festival at The Playhouse in Derry.

Rounding up a fortnight of jocular mirth, and fresh from a successful run at the Edinburgh fringe, was a presentation of Penny Dreadful’s new show Etherdome. It was a macabre comic tale of 19th century invention with gruesome plot twists and a strong witty visual style.

For the comedy nerds and 'those in the know' this was going to be one of the main treats of the festival. Sketch group The Penny Dreadfuls have been a mainstay of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the past five years, their shows garnering top awards and leading to two BBC Radio 4 series and a handful of specials.

Their tales of Victorian explorers have won them a legion of fans and seen them described as a mix of Monty Python and Blackadder.

Except the 'fresh from the Edinburgh festival' Penny Dreadful of Etherdome, with their 19th century tales married to strong, witty, visual flair, are not the same Edinburgh festival award garnering The Penny Dreadfuls who have graced the BBC with their 19th century tales, and are noted for their strong visual flair.

They’re not even connected. The difference is laid out in the small print, this is ‘Penny Dreadful presents...’ as opposed to ‘The Penny Dreadfuls.' They are two very separate and unconnected troupes ploughing the same field. 

It’s like booking a top comic and finding you ended up with Eddie Izzzard with three Zs instead of two. Audience reviews of their Edinburgh show are littered with people who understandably caught this show thinking they had booked for something else. It’s a disappointment that is hard to get over and really does Etherdome no favours.

Etherdome is a well constructed and enjoyable piece of theatre. It would have been a totally unexpected delight, if the majority of the audience weren’t expecting something else. It’s akin to The League of Gentleman as directed by Lisa May, rather than a well-honed sketch group comically riffing.

Style and substance took precedence over the outright pursuit of gags. On a normal theatre night this would have been fine. Since it was the final night of a comedy festival, however, there were murmurs of ‘shouldn’t this be funnier?’

Luckily major disappointment never fully took a foothold. The sheer invention of the set pieces and performances on display were enough to distract the audience.

It was a blood soaked tale of pain relief, hucksters, double crossings and ether. Occasionally, the narrative was as disorientating as you may imagine from that combination. However, the performers did their best to keep as many creative plates spinning at once and where uniformly excellent.

Dennis Herdman in particular deserves attention, relishing with monstrous glee his role as William Morton, a villain who if he chewed more scenery would be in danger of becoming morbidly obese.

Penny Dreadful presents Etherdome was fun, witty and, nevertheless, still a bit of a let down. No matter how good they were, it wasn't what many people in the audience had expected. In future, it would do Penny Dreadful harm to distance themselves from their other more successful doppelgangers.