Tom Skelton, Blind Man’s Bluff

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Stephen Portlock was at Slam, in London’s King’s Cross on 25 July to enjoy a preview of Tom Skelton’s Edinburgh stand-up show Blind Man’s Bluff, before it lands at the Fringe, plus support from Douglas Walker.

Tom Skelton, Blind Man's Bluff

Tom Skelton plays multiple parts in Blind Man’s Bluff. Photograph: Joanna Lally

He may not have realised it but the talented comic performer Tom Skelton came of age on Tuesday. He hit thirty. You’re not funny until you’re at least thirty. That’s not my opinion but that of Rob Twohy, comedian and editor of Starting Stand-Up Comedy! “As far as stand-up is concerned, if you’re under thirty, you haven’t lived through enough shit to make what your life is about relatable to others”.

I think Twohy has a point, though I have heard some very funny twenty-something stand-ups. There are ways round that problem, and in this enjoyable Edinburgh preview, two responses were demonstrated. With tongue in cheek, I would add that Twohy’s remark was challenged since the evening was put on by Extant who turned twenty this year.

Comic Douglas Walker’s quirky and inventive Zuschauer: There’s more to watching comedy than sitting in the dark delivered a series of sketches and character monologues that managed at different times to be hysterically funny and strangely moving, and he startlingly managed to deconstruct them while remaining amusing.

Tom Skelton’s Blind Man’s Bluff was advertised as the main event, and his show, while less polished, managed an equally high laughs-per-minute ratio. What really impressed was not just the sheer energy levels throughout, but also Tom’s remarkable verbal and vocal dexterity. I was genuinely surprised to find out at the end of the show that there were no supporting performers – Tom played all the parts, including, shades of Graeae, that of the often-hilarious audio description commentary.

The show opens with an ophthalmology lecturer, in a crisp voice disconcertingly reminiscent of that of historian Anthony Seldon, addressing his students – the audience – with a case study. That of young man Tom Skelton who has 5% sight through Labours Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. “Any very poor taste jokes you make about the blind are absolutely fine”.

Tom then appears, recounts his story, and the heart of Blind Man’s Bluff gets underway as the ‘sympathetic’ ophthalmologist tries to reassure Tom with examples of positive role models, sometimes dragging audience members onstage as accompaniment.  In the Labour Party alone there was David Blunkett (fully blind), Gordon Brown (partially sighted) and Yvette Cooper, who must have some sight impairment given her choice of sexual partner!

Other examples trotted out included Samson, Bela II, the blind king of Hungary, John Milton and Louis Braille. While to my mind many of these ‘portraits’ were a little undernourished, they were often very funny. Some jokes were repeated twice, such as one about the Labour Party, whereas others fell flat, but Tom’s skill was shown by the fact that he incorporated those failings into the set, thereby garnering a further laugh.

A joke about Samson being the first suicide bomber, which possibly proved a little too close to the bone for some audience members, led to a conversation between Tom and the ophthalmologist: “I’m surprised you kept that in”, “Yes so am I”.

The funniest moment of the show did not directly concern a role model but revolved around talking books, particularly as it included a dig at Jose Saramago’s truly abysmal Blindness: A Novel.

Compared to Douglas’s set, Tom will need to give some polishing and even pruning to Blind Man’s Bluff. Like Douglas, however, he is clearly a very talented young man and on this basis, he has a promising future ahead of him. Happy Birthday Tom! Happy Birthday Extant!

Tom Skelton’s Blind Man’s Bluff is on at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from 3rd to 15th, then 17th to August at Underbelly Med Quad (venue 302) at 16:30.