Tarot on rehearsals and palm-reading with COVID-19

Ben Rowse, one-fifth of sketch super group Tarot, drops us a line about the group's comedy process – and Yu-Gi-Oh!

Article by Louis Cammell | 01 Apr 2020
  • Tarot by Drew Forsyth

Conducting an interview with Tarot is a lot like attending one of their shows: disorienting, confusing, hilarious and, if you’re lucky, perhaps there's a hint of truth buried in there somewhere. The tricky part is identifying it. The troupe operates on a brilliantly unique premise: pre-prepared sketches assigned to Tarot cards, the combination and order of which is then dictated live by the audience. What results is a descent into a rabbit hole, the ghastliness of which, for all the laughs it produces, would no doubt have Alice wondering if her psychedelic adventures were really worth the trouble.  

In the midst of a global pandemic, Ben Rowse (also known for his work in sketch group Goose) suggests that if any sketch group is ready for isolation, it’s them. “We rehearse over WhatsApp,” he says. “That’s why every expression in the show is an emoji.” The statement’s effect is like being told you’re adopted even though you’re the spitting image of your parents. You know it’s not true, but to not give it a moment of serious consideration would be irresponsible. While the troupe do possess the kind of papier-mâché faces that make it all too easy to drink up the lie, logic soon sets in and it’s obvious that to rely on WhatsApp to plan more than a pub get-together would be a fool’s errand.

Speaking on how a space can affect a performance, Rowse has no one to blame for those many preview shows when the group walked into the venue and simultaneously thought “this just won’t work”. “It’s hard to blame the architects for that [feeling],” says Rowse. Ambience clearly plays a huge role in the success or failure of their shows, since the sketches often take a backseat to allow for the main attraction: the intense rivalry between performers. Yet Rowse has only the wisdom of a small-time crook to offer when it comes to the question of how day shows differ to evening shows: it’s easier to make a getaway in the dark.   

Fittingly for someone who deals in Satan jokes, Rowse seems to have adopted Coronavirus as his new comic muse, and makes it clear that it’s what he’d rather be talking about. He inserts it into anecdotes to cause havoc like that cheat code in Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 that would allow you to play as Shrek. He spins a yarn about fellow Tarot member Ed Easton having his palm read in the midst of the outbreak and thus having to do it hands-free. “She read his elbow instead,” he says. “He was told he’d be a tennis player." 

As funny as Rowse is, there’s a subtext in his preoccupation with COVID-19 which compels one to wonder how the fortunes of a sketch comedy group will be affected. Although, since Rowse basically defines doing this for a living as a bad financial move (admittedly on the part of fellow Tarot-member Adam Drake, rather than his own), the impression he gives off is that where money is concerned comedy is a relatively barren land, virus or no virus.

Even so, he’s a dab hand at keeping things light, which may have something to do with how audiences leave Tarot’s shows smiling rather than rocking back-and-forth for days on end. Whatever their medium, artists and performers are constantly at risk of appearing to pontificate about their work. Not Rowse. He shows no interest in discussing what it was about the Tarot deck that led to its use for the show. “Kath was really pushing Yu-Gi-Oh! for a while. But then it turned out that David Walliams was developing something similar. UNO only really works as an opera, so we ruled that out. We ended up settling on Tarot because there was no faff with copyright infringement. Far fewer emails in the occult, basically”.

Nothing seems any clearer about Tarot and its members. Lucky for them, mystique is their stock-in trade and they’re not about to give it up. Perhaps another member of the group would have answered the above questions totally differently, but what’s more probable is that in any member’s hands the answers would be equally as impenetrable. Watching Tarot is like watching a Monty Python sketch devised entirely by a cursed Magic 8-Ball, and like that it shall stay.   


Listen to Tarot's Kiri Pritchard-McLean on BBC R4's Newsjack, @killnofillpod and @amusicalshow podcast. Her Hysterical Woman show is also available to watch on NextUp