Comedian Josh Ladgrove is best known for his red beret doffing, lab coat wearing, clowning creation Neal Portenza. Last year Ladgrove/Portenza claimed he was stepping away from comedy. This year he returns as Portenza portraying the character of Joshua Ladgrove, Australasia’s most successful bilge pump salesman. Who is of course not be mistaken for the actual Josh Ladgrove. Confused yet? You will be.
The set-up for the show is relatively straightforward, being a send-up of sales seminars. We, the audience, are supposed to be a group of hungry bilge pump sales hopefuls learning the art of selling bilge pumps from the aggressively cheerful Ladgrove. The character is a well-crafted caricature of a particular type of aggressive sales executive, full of swagger, jargon, and cod-philosophising, albeit one that has various surrealist touches such as his penchant for swigging Listerine.
One of the surprises here is just how flexible bilge pump is as a comic phrase. As Ladgrove keeps saying it over and over, you think it can’t possibly stay funny. However, whether it is in a vocal warm-up, as in the opening ‘backstage’ segment, or inserted into popular songs like Jump or We Will Rock You or various cod idioms, Ladgrove keeps finding different context to make it funny.
Ladgrove is also very good at working the crowd. Given this a fake seminar, there is a lot of audience interaction. One of the most amusing examples of which is a segment where Ladgrove teaches two unsuspecting audiences members an utterly bizarre door-to-door sales technique.
The other key strength to the hour is that, just as it seems Ladgrove is treading an obvious path, there is something around the corner to surprise you. When the show seems like it might be running out of steam, when you think you can’t take one more bilge pump-related gag, the set takes a hard left turn into entirely unexpected territory which is difficult to discuss without spoilers. Suffice to say you are unlikely to see it coming. Although, on saying that, the unexpected turns are made all the funnier when you find how they were seeded throughout the show.
Neal Portenza is Joshua Ladgrove in: Edinburgh’s Only Bilge Pump Sales Seminar ends up being one of the weirdest, most original, not to mention surprisingly layered hours of comedy at this year Fringe. Just don’t expect to learn anything useful about bilge pumps.