Tag Archives: Comedy

“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller

at Richmond Theatre, Tuesday 24th June 2014

*Originally written for Exeunt*

The last lines of Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22 form one of those famous closing passages: “Yossarian jumped.  Nately’s whore was hiding just outside the door.  The knife came down, missing him by inches and he took off.” It’s a beautifully ambiguous ending, with the phrase “took off” having a whole plethora of different meanings, and contains within it all the contradictions of the novel itself.

In this stage version of the novel, however – which Heller adapted himself – some of that ambiguity and contradiction of this classic World War II story is unfortunately lost in its transition to a different medium. Continue reading “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller


Tim Key: Single White Slut

at Arcola Tent, Thursday 13th March 2014

*Originally reviewed for Exeunt*

Here’s a little game. Is the following (a) a poem or (b) a text message?

“Taj Mahal great. Poverty bad.”

If you answered (b), give yourself a pat on the back. The message was, apparently, sent to Tim Key by his mum when she visisted India, though it’s symptomatic of a show where, though poems are ‘announced’ and ‘read’, a poetic vein runs throughout. Key tells us stories, asks us questions and recounts information in a way which lilts and soothes, managing to be tightly structured and completely free at the same time, ensuring you’re never quite sure where the ‘poetry’ begins and the ‘comedy’ ends. Continue reading Tim Key: Single White Slut

“A Mad World My Masters” by Thomas Middleton

at the Swan Theatre, Thursday 13th June 2013

*Originally written for Exeunt*

There are some shows which have you spitting with disgust and others which have you gagging with laughter. Oftentimes, a play can make you so full of fire that you just need to let of some steam. Elsewhere, a production gives so much joy that you just can’t get enough. Sean Foley’s production of Thomas Middleton’s 1605 play A Mad World My Masters falls firmly into the latter of these categories, knocking you back with its oral dexterity and making the audience howl with ecstasy with its relentless barrage of innuendos and double entendres.

Middleton’s play doesn’t have the most sophisticated of plots – it’s a tale of bed-swapping, disguise and silly-named individuals never getting what they want – Continue reading “A Mad World My Masters” by Thomas Middleton

“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Friday 10th May 2013

With the two productions of As You Like It I’ve seen in the last few weeks being among the best Shakespearean performances I’ve come across in my short life, the play is very quickly becoming my favourite in the Bard’s canon. Both Maria Aberg’s Glastonbury-style show at the RSC and the Marjanishvili Theatre’s take on the play end in anarchic, messy, blissfully joyous finales which bring smiles when remembering them, encapsulating the capacity for hope within the play itself.

Hailing from Georgia on a triumphant return after the Globe to Globe season last year, one of the most striking things about the Marjanishvili Theatre’s production is its sheer sense of delight. Continue reading “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare

On Variety

Of all the theatrical shows I saw over this Christmas period (People, The Magistrate, Kiss Me Kate), the only one to have any real impact on me was Lucy Prebble’s The Effect; its intricate, moving love story coupled with a complex discussion about the ethics of drugs companies has stayed with me for the last few weeks and doesn’t look like it’ll go away soon. But though there was only one out-and-out ‘theatre’ piece which moved me, I also saw two other things which had their own particular resonance, bringing  to the forefront of my mind thoughts about variety and its potential use as a theatrical form.

The first of these was Frisky and Mannish’s Christmas show at Koko’s. The pair sung their way through their take on popular Christmas songs, introducing a host of cabaret acts in between their numbers (The Boy With Tape on His Face, Piff the Magic Dragon, Bruce Airhead). It was hardly a very cerebrally challenging evening, and didn’t say anything about the world as such (it wasn’t trying to) but that’s not to say it wasn’t gloriously enjoyable (helped by the fact it was almost Christmas and it was my birthday the next day). Either way, the overall feeling was one of celebration, and if there was any overriding worldview which was purveyed it was that nothing is sacred (not even our favourite Christmas songs) and we can subvert anything in the name of comedy and new understandings.

The second show, entitled “The End of the World Show”, was presented by Robin Ince and Brian Cox and was “a summary of all human achievement” and an unashamed “celebration of rationality”. With guests including Ben Goldacre, Adam Rutherford, Scroobius Pip, Kate Tempest, Ben Miller, Steve Coogan, Hugh Grant and Dara O’Briain discussing evolution, space travel, astronomy, chemistry, homeopathy, drugs companies and quantum physics, the overall feeling of this four-and-a-half hour show was of optimism and wonder, encouraging us to think for ourselves and consider the beauty of the world (and universe) around us.

But why am I talking about these productions on a theatre blog? Well, it seems to me that theatre would do well to take a few ideas from the world of variety and cabaret. The idea of a multi-voiced, multi-media production has started to take hold more in recent years with Decade and Greenland leading the way. More recently, authors working alone have begun to incorporate tones of variety into their shows, with Martin Crimp writing in different styles and incorporating music so that we get a wider understanding of the topics of discussion in In The Republic of Happiness.

I know I say it a lot, but in a century in which it has become simple to find out opposing views on something just by Googling and where we are bombarded consistently by opinions on social networks and news sites, the response of a wide range of writers and artists may be a better way of considering the subject matter whether that be a theme, an idea or even a story; plurality must be embraced.

True, different characters can embody different ideas in more straightforward plays, and sometimes the complexity of a well-written script makes us challenge our own opinions so that we can view ideas afresh. But is this really a reflection of our postmodern condition? Is this really sufficient as we move into ever-more complex, confused conditions? How else can we explore these fascinating, necessary and eternal debates?

These are the thoughts swimming around my mind as I begin to edit the texts which have been written for my production of Fascism Anyone?, in which we’re hoping to interrogate the way we understand fascism in 2013. We already have a variety of responses, including black comedies, Beckettian shorts, monologues and raps, and we’ll be including music and movement, but does this count as variety? And if not, can (or should) we be doing more to incorporate a wider variety of artforms?

I’m fully aware that Frisky, Mannish, Brian and Robin weren’t necessarily trying to put across the kind of one-theme response I’ve been considering, but the choice of response tells us a lot, as they understand that looking at particular ideas in different ways can be more engaging, complex and, in a way, democratic. Which seems like the ideal way to combat fascism theatrically.

“Twelfth Night” (or why I hate Original Practices) by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Thursday 27th September 2012

Looking at the cast and creative team behind Tim Carroll’s production of Twelfth Night, it’s not hard to predict how the production is going to be played (that is, of course, if you didn’t see the original in 2002). Now, this isn’t in itself a Bad Thing. The production is very strong, pretty funny, has the audience enraptured and features some glorious performances.

But then I go to the theatre to be surprised. I want to experience something unexpected. True, not everyone does, but if I book a ticket I expect not to be able to work out exactly how it’s going to be performed.

I’m not saying that I was able to sit on the train on the way to London and picture, moment for moment, the play as it happened; that I would have enjoyed myself more sat at home reading the play with voices in my head. No, I’m not a seer and I did very much enjoy the piece. All I’m saying is that, knowing the work of these creatives and actors, and having experienced Globe productions before, it was easy to work out the features and general style of the thing.

Rylance’s Olivia was always going to be gentle on the whole with sudden outbursts and feature a certain peculiarity (here it’s a spirit-like glide), maintaining femininity without ever trying too hard. Stephen Fry’s Malvolio could be heard clearly in the mind’s ear before stepping foot in the theatre; a bumbling, sympathetic misanthrope who is unable to connect with his peers and thus has to suffer humiliation. Johnny Flynn and Samuel Barnett as Viola and Sebastian was perhaps a turn from the more obvious choice of putting them the other way round, but still show two sides of the same coin and provide a lot of heart. Granted, Paul Chahidi gives a surprising turn as Maria, and in many moments steals the scene, but on the whole the rest of the cast is fairly standard (though a little stronger than usual Globe fare).

Jenni Tiramani’s aesthetic of doublet and hose is also of little interest and, though the jokes are strong and frequent (thank God someone remembered it’s a comedy), they aren’t exactly original.

I guess what I’m saying here is that I’m tired of so-called “original practices” (I liked John Donnelly recent tweet: “I’m setting up a theatre company called Original Practices… Tagline: ‘Quality is not an option’.”). I find their use dull, unnecessary (in that it doesn’t add anything that non-original-practice couldn’t do) and regressive. I’m therefore going to use the rest of this post to try to justify those statements, with passing reference to Twelfth Night. Okay? Grand.

The most obvious thing about original practices performances is that they feature all-male casts. The argument that this doesn’t offer opportunities for women in an industry saturated in male parts is perhaps a little redundant since all-female productions have started to become a regular occurrence, but it’s certainly something worth considering. I don’t have an issue with the notion of an all-male cast in itself (I adore the work of Propellor), but with the way it is used. For where Edward Hall’s company takes that old Shakespearean feature and subverts it in order to draw things out in the play which weren’t apparent before, the Globe generally fails to discover anything new about these characters. Of course, the whole notion of acting is based on the idea of pretending to be someone else, but when there are scores of women who could play these parts better than men, why are they denied access?

Using men to play women also, slightly out of necessity, relies on stereotypes. True, those stereotypes (women are “fragile” or “strong” etc.) may be rejected just as much as they are obeyed, but they still collect an audience’s subconscious prejudices and play on that. At one point, for example, Johnny Flynn’s Viola screams when confronted with Andrew Aguecheek’s sword. Why is this funny? Not because of the situation, but because we accept the stereotype that women are afraid little creatures who can’t fend for themselves, and then remember that this isn’t a woman after all. Hilarious.

I also wonder about the ability to repeat of OP productions (and here I become a bit shaky, as I’ve not seen a play done more than once following OP). For, while there is a different production for every director and each will bring out different things in a rehearsal room, if the same design and approach is used each time then there isn’t going to be a huge amount of difference between what the plays say. I know this Twelfth Night is essentially a revival of the 2002 production, but then how different would an original practices production overseen by a different director really be? Sure, the use of the space would differ and things like new intonation and characterisation would be apparent, but would it leave us feeling any differently?

Original practices clearly has/had its place. When the New Globe first opened, it was a way of exploring Shakespeare in his own space and on his own terms, and was actually truly experimental. But I wonder how much the learning curve has plateaued. It doesn’t teach us as much now as it did fourteen years ago, and I think the original reservations about it making the space feel like a “museum” are becoming true again. What do we get from original practices which we wouldn’t get from, say, a black box production, and is that worth the loss of truthful female characters and social comment? This type of theatre was made four-hundred years ago. Have we really become so disillusioned with everything we’ve learnt since then that we have to regress to an outdated form?

I know I’m in the minority here. Audiences love the style and productions play to packed houses. Twelfth Night is a tight, funny, touching production, but to me that seems to be an exception to the rule. I know the Globe is built for presenting Shakespeare in his original context and I know that’s how it’s supposed to work (and, actually, that most productions don’t have all-male casts). Nonetheless, the theatre does have potential to do things differently, and I can’t help thinking that by trying out new styles, Dromgoole and his company could end up moving forward, not back.

“Dirty Great Love Story” by Richard Marsh & Katie Bonna

at Pleasance Dome, Monday 20th August 2012

Ordinarily, I’m not a rom-com fan. They’re too soppy for my liking. Dirty Great Love Story, however, is a romantic comedy which I can bear. More than bear. I could watch it over and over again. Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna’s script takes the genre and offers up a more truthful, twenty-first century rendition. A mix of performance poetry, theatre and comedy creates a show which is laugh-out-loud funny and will leave you with a smile bigger than the Cheshire Cat’s.

Bonna and Marsh play Katie and Rich, who had a one-night stand and now have to deal with the consequences. They go through phases of liking and then disliking one another, becoming friends and then worst enemies. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, the fact they are each aware of the other is the only thing which remains constant. The story is an old one. The way in which is presented is semi-revolutionary.

The text is a weird mix of verse and comedic patter, maintaining a constant rhythm whilst simultaneously talking directly to us in asides and one-liners. The fact poetry is used is particularly effective, either allowing us to see where the next line is going or surprising us with an unexpected rhyme or a complete subversion of the rhythm. It also means a whimsical, romantic tone is placed upon this raw, modern story about sex and roadside cafes, reminding us we are not being told anything new, but having it told to us in a different way.

It’s difficult to describe just how or why Dirty Great Love Story is so tonsil-waggingly hilarious. The images Bonna and Marsh create are gloriously imaginative, and their tone while telling them is just too real to not laugh. We can all relate to this, no matter how; we have all been as blind, stupid, and infuriatingly unkind as the couple. All we can do is laugh at them. It’s a kind of catharsis.

Pia Furtado’s simple staging revels in the beauty of the language, making simple, bold moves which never cloud the telling of the story. It is smart and slick, forcing us to listen to what’s being said. The choice to keep both actors on stage the whole way through (even when the other is monologue-ing) is also an intelligent one; these two characters are always in each other’s worlds, and even when they are furthest apart they can still sense the other.

Dirty Great Love Story deserves a longer run and bigger audiences than it is currently enjoying in Edinburgh. This is a plea to all theatre programmers out there to book this show in your schedules. It’ll sell out, I promise. Within a year, this show will be huge, so you’d better get there first. Bonna and Marsh have crafted a gloriously hopeful, wonderfully compelling and refreshingly witty piece of theatre which both makes us laugh and restores our faith in those around us. It also makes rom-com haters love a rom-com. So book it. Everyone deserves to see this show.