Harry Venning: Release Your Inner Cartoonist

Pleasance Courtyard
3rd-20th August 2016

Harry Venning ©Paul Thompson.png

Material :four-stars  Delivery : four-stars  Laughs : three-stars

It has always amazed me how someone can produce consistent humour week after week. That’s what a cartoonist does, often more frequently than that. “Drawing’s the easy part, being funny’s the hard part,” Harry Venning said to me after the show. For those of you who do not know him, Harry produces the cartoon strip ‘Clare in the Community’ in the Guardian, the (mis)adventures of a rather dour, humourless, ‘politically-correct’ social worker and her long-suffering, slightly overweight husband. He also draws ‘Hamlet’ a theatre-going pig, usually seen at the theatre bar – another dour, humourless character – for The Stage. Dour or not, they get laughs, and that’s the main thing.

Harry has been doing this release-your-inner-cartoonist routine, in one form or another, for some time now, so it’s not actually a new show he’s giving at the Pleasance. It is, however, one adapted for a family audience. It’s the kind of thing you might have expected to see advertised as ‘For kids of all ages’, meaning adults too, and indeed it comes with the warning ‘Parental guidance advised’. That means blood will be spilt, and occasionally there’ll be something slightly rude – but then kids love that sort of thing! The show or, more precisely, the audience-participation workshop, takes place in one of the little studio venues at the Pleasance, up several flights of stairs. It’s a small, intimate space, and is just about right for cramming the level of participation Harry aims for into an hour. Harry takes up his position – everybody’s slightly scruffy, eccentric, excitable uncle – at the front, with a flipchart and pens, we sit opposite, each of us with a clipboard, a few sheets of blank paper, and a pencil, and he kicks off with the story of Michael the Tiger. Michael the Tiger was so badly-drawn that no one even realised he was a tiger. That’s where the blood comes into it.

With the help of The Sad Puppy, Wayne Rooney, and The Eskimo Brothers, we are conducted through a quick and easy way to draw cartoons, starting with the eyes. The show’s humour isn’t side-splitting, nor is it at all cutting-edge, in fact it leans towards the Christmas-cracker, back-of-matchbox standard, but what the hell! I’ll give you a wonderful example. The kids in the audience join in with gusto while Harry draws a cartoon alien to order, responding to demands for twenty-eight eyes and fifteen ears by sticking the former on stalks and the latter in two rows of seven down the side of the alien’s head… making fourteen. The fifteenth he puts in the middle of the alien’s forehead. “You see,” he says gleefully, “I left space for the final front ear!” Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. There are twentieth-century cultural references left like Easter Eggs in the material for older members of the audience, perhaps making a gap between them and the youngsters, but overall Harry pitches it all just about right. That’s not easy to achieve.

Dog's bum - orignal cartoon.png

I won’t bother with much more commentary, but I will mention a device which, for a cartoonist, serves many useful purposes. I refer, of course, to the humble asterisk. It’s because of that humble asterisk that I now have an original, signed cartoon of a dog’s bumhole. I shall treasure it forever. I’m going to be kind and give the event four stars across all categories – material, delivery, and laughs – with the proviso that groans are as valuable as laughs when we’re dealing with this kind of humour, and that its appeal is obviously limited. Go to it, and take kids. If you have kids that like to scribble on pieces of paper, or you’re an adult who likes to scribble on pieces of paper, and you’ll find it very enjoyable.

Reviewed by Paul Thompson


One thought on “Harry Venning: Release Your Inner Cartoonist

  1. Just a note to Mumble readers. The YouTube clip here is a very condensed version, aimed at a more adult audience, and with no audience participation involved. The show at the Pleasance is paced much better, and full of opportunities to join in.


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